Judging the Royals

Should Yordano Ventura be the Royals’ opening day starter?

Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Yordano Ventura delivered a pitch in the first inning during game six of the World Series at Kauffman Stadium on Oct. 28, 2014, in Kansas City, Mo.
Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Yordano Ventura delivered a pitch in the first inning during game six of the World Series at Kauffman Stadium on Oct. 28, 2014, in Kansas City, Mo. The Kansas City Star

A couple years ago I was standing behind a backstop on one of the Royals spring training fields in Surprise, Ariz. A skinny kid was on the mound and he cut loose with a fastball. After one pitch I immediately turned to the person next to me and asked: “Who is that guy?”

It was my first look at Yordano Ventura.

When you’re sitting in the upper deck you might think a big-league fastball doesn’t look all that fast, but if you ever get to stand close to home plate when a big-league pitcher throws a big-league fastball, you’ll realize they’re throwing a lot harder than you think — and Yordano Ventura throws harder than almost anybody else. Ventura can hit 100 mph on the radar gun and throws a cutter, curve and changeup to go along with that heater. He finished the 2014 season with a record of 14-10 and an ERA of 3.20.

So here’s the question: if the Royals get to opening day and their starting rotation is Jason Vargas, Jeremy Guthrie, Edinson Volquez, Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura, and Ventura has the best stuff on the staff, should Ventura be the Royals’ opening day starter?

It depends.

Royals’ fans should not forget that Ventura is 23 years old. He came up to the big leagues in 2013 and since then has pitched in a total of 39 games. Here’s why that matters:

During the 2014 AL Wild Card Game against the Oakland A’s, the Royals were up 3-2 going into the sixth inning. Starting pitcher James Shields gave up a lead-off single to Sam Fuld and then walked Josh Donaldson. With runners on first and second and nobody out, Ventura was brought in to face Brandon Moss.

Ventura threw Moss two fastballs and both missed the zone. With the count 2-0, Ventura threw a third fastball — a fastball in a fastball count — and Moss didn’t miss it. Ventura’s 98 mph fastball was lined over the center-field wall for a three-run homer and the Athletics had the lead.

Things did not get a whole lot better after that; Josh Reddick singled and Ventura threw a wild pitch that moved Reddick to second. Jed Lowrie hit a fly ball to right, Reddick tagged up, went to third and eventually scored. At the time, it appeared to be a disaster; the Royals had gone into the top of the sixth inning up by one run and went into the bottom of the sixth inning down by four.

Ventura had faced three batters, given up two hits, allowed two earned runs and finished his one-third of an inning with a postseason ERA of 54.00. According to Star columnist Vahe Gregorian’s recent profile, Yordano cried after that outing and was so despondent that he texted Rene Francisco, the Royals’ vice president for international operations, “Please tell them not to lose confidence in me.”

So what’s all that have to do with being the opening day starter?

At the beginning of the season, No. 1 starters face No. 1 starters. Each team throws their best guy out there on opening day and for a while — until days off or rainouts throw matchups out of sync — an opening day starter can assume he’ll face the best pitcher the opposition has to offer.

And that means you can pitch great and still lose.

If a pitcher is mentally strong that might not matter; he knows what he can control and how well the other guy pitches isn’t on the list. But if a guy isn’t confident it can get in his head; he feels like he’s pitched very well and is still losing.

Guys who have been around awhile understand that. Veteran pitchers have been through the ups and downs and are less likely to lose confidence in themselves or their approach. If they know they’re pitching well, but not winning, they won’t panic and start making changes.

Less confident guys begin to doubt themselves and start tinkering with an approach that didn’t need fixing. They want their fastball to be that much harder, their curve to be that much nastier; they change what they’ve been doing. Now a guy who was pitching well — but not winning — really is in trouble.

If Yordano Ventura gets the opening day start, it’s an indication that the Royals think he’s confident, able to handle adversity and ready to be a team leader. If the Royals give the opening day start to one of their veterans, it might mean the Royals think Ventura needs to build his confidence and have more success at the big-league level before stepping into that role.

Should Yordano Ventura be the opening day starter?

I’m pretty sure I’m unqualified to answer that question, but we’ll find out what the Royals think on Monday, April 6th at 3:10 p.m.

To reach Lee Judge, call 816-234-4482 or send email to ljudge@kcstar.com.

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