When Edinson Volquez looks at the 23-year-old sitting next to him, he sees a version of himself. Like Yordano Ventura, Volquez left the Dominican Republic for a small signing bonus. He was a scrawny, undersized kid who debuted in the majors at 22 with a fastball that touched 98 mph. People called him “Pedrito” as homage to his legendary countryman, Pedro Martinez.
“I was the same way,” Volquez said.
As a prospect rising in the Texas Rangers organization, Volquez exhibited exquisite talent and maddening behavior. He leaned upon veterans like Francisco Cordero, Alfonso Soriano, Vicente Padilla and Mark Teixeira to show him how to be “like one of them.” Along the way he learned the necessity of developing plans for opposing hitters, displaying hustle at his position and keeping his jersey tucked into his pants.
In the past few days, as Ventura resided in the center of another controversy, a wave of Royals veterans huddled to advise their No. 1 starter. Ventura does not suffer from sartorial laziness or lackluster preparation. His failings have been temperamental, as Major League Baseball levied a seven-game suspension against him for sparking a benches-clearing brawl with the White Sox.
The umpires ejected Ventura from Thursday’s game. He was also ejected for throwing a 99-mph fastball at Oakland third baseman Brett Lawrie last weekend. Both those incidents followed a curious act of foreshadowing, when Ventura instigated a verbal spat for unknown reasons against Angels superstar Mike Trout. Ventura, who’s 2-1 with a 4.09 ERA, has yet to finish an outing on his own accord, as he’s either been ejected or left early with cramps in four starts.
The Royals cherish Ventura’s talent, and they lavished him with a five-year, $23 million contract before this season started. They raved about his maturity and emotional stability. Yet the first month of 2015 has called both qualities into question.
In the wake of these incidents, team officials have rallied around him while still insisting his behavior must change. Manager Ned Yost advised Ventura that opposing clubs would pinpoint his emotions to vex him. Teammates like Volquez, Jeremy Guthrie and Chris Young counseled Ventura that his talent is enough to trump any challengers.
“Really, at the end of the day, he doesn’t deal with high-emotional situations very well,” Guthrie said. “They take him to a place that others sometimes don’t get to. It’s on both ends. It takes him to an elite performance level. But it also takes him to an emotional level that can be misunderstood and, at times, inappropriate.”
Thursday marked the most vulgar incident. In the seventh inning with the score tied, White Sox outfielder Adam Eaton appeared upset that Ventura threw what Eaton considered a quick pitch. Eaton shared some words with the umpire. When Eaton hit a comebacker to the mound, he also shouted at Ventura. Ventura responded with a two-word epithet that amateur lip-readers across the country could discern.
The consequences were ugly. Lorenzo Cain sparred with Jeff Samardzija, his opening day antagonist. Chris Sale was furious, and later visited the Royals clubhouse in search of a fight. Volquez took a wild swing at Samardzija and received a five-game suspension. Cain was suspended for two games, as was reliever Kelvin Herrera. Both Sale and Samardzija received five-game bans. All involved parties will appeal the decision.
Ventura sounded apologetic after the game. He said it hurt him to see his teammates fighting the opposition after he failed to keep his cool. Ventura appeared aware of his reputation within the game, one debated endlessly these past few days on television, as a young pitcher unable to control his emotions.
“He recognizes that some of his actions are putting him in a less than favorable light, as well as the team, which is very important to him,” said Guthrie, who translated for Ventura. “So he wants to work on it, and be better.”
A day later, Guthrie relayed parts of the message he has conveyed to Ventura. “I think when he recognizes the power that lies within just his sheer raw talent, when he learns how to use that to be even better, he will grow by leaps and bounds and become as good as he possibly can,” Guthrie said.
Yost speculated that opposing clubs would now utilize these tactics to hound Ventura during games. On Thursday, members of the Royals mentioned how Samardzija chirped at Ventura from the opposing dugout. Ventura did not have to deal with this treatment as often in 2014, when he was a rookie pitching third in a rotation that included James Shields.
Now Shields is gone and his mantle belongs to Ventura. After Ventura posted a 3.20 ERA during the regular season and the playoffs, Yost explained, opponents learned they lacked many weapons to combat his elite velocity and developing off-speed pitches.
“Last year, nobody knew who he was,” Yost said. “Now they know who he is. They know how tough he is. They know how good he is. And they’re trying to find alternative ways of beating him. And the majority of the alternative routes that they’re taking is they’re trying to get in his dome. They’re trying to (tick) him off.
“They know he plays with emotions. And that’s what they’re trying to do. And, at times, he allows them to accomplish that. And he needs to continue to stay focused and work as hard as he can to let his game do the talking.”
On his way to the Hall of Fame, Pedro Martinez never shied away from confrontation. He lacked fear when throwing inside. He engaged in plenty of scuffles. But as Volquez spoke with Ventura the other day, he related a different anecdote.
Volquez set the scene for Ventura: Martinez pitching for the Red Sox inside a raucous Yankee Stadium. A horde of nearly 60,000 people howling at him. When Martinez bested his opponents, Volquez explained, he would walk off the mound and point to the sky.
In time, Volquez and the rest of the Royals hope, Ventura can learn to replicate his idol.
“He understands,” Volquez said. “He’s growing up. But at the same time, you’ve got to understand, he’s a young guy, a very emotional guy. He promised me he would try to be calm and pitch.”