The whole thing is about the curveball. Maybe that’s an oversimplification. OK, fine, that’s definitely an oversimplification. Yordano Ventura is awesome again for many reasons.
He’s awesome again because he has learned that the contract and opening day start the Royals gave him don’t demand he turn into a WWE heel. He’s awesome again because he’s better between starts since an attitude-adjusting demotion in July and — manager Ned Yost will tell you this is the big one — he’s awesome again because of Johnny Cueto’s influence.
There is almost certainly some truth in all of that. But those are fuzzy and intangible theories that have more to do with feelings than baseball. And when Ventura is on the mound — presumably, at this point, as the Royals’ Game 1 starter in the Division Series next week — he’ll need more nasty than feelings.
And there’s a lot of nasty in that curveball.
“When he’s got that secondary pitch for a strike, then he’s going to be great. Then we can throw offspeed behind the count, and we’re comfortable because we know he can throw it for a strike.”
Royals catcher Sal Perez
In his last start before the playoffs — a nationally broadcast game — Ventura pitched one of the best games of what is still a young career as the Royals beat the Twins 5-1 on Saturday at Target Field. He matched a career high with 11 strikeouts, gave up just one run, and did not allow a hit until the fifth inning.
“Yeah, yeah,” catcher Sal Perez says when asked if this was the best Ventura has ever been. “When he’s got that secondary pitch for a strike, then he’s going to be great. Then we can throw offspeed behind the count, and we’re comfortable because we know he can throw it for a strike.”
The remaking of Ventura has been largely because of that curveball and changeup. He has a tattoo of a flaming baseball on his arm, and over the last two seasons only two regular starting pitchers have thrown harder fastballs.
But, like Perez says, it’s the offspeed pitches — and that curveball in particular — that are making him special.
Ventura has never pitched as well as his last 11 starts. There is a nerdy statistic for starting pitchers called Game Score, which puts a numerical value on each start — anything above 50 is generally good, anything below 50 is generally bad.
In his career, Ventura has achieved a Game Score of 70 or higher 12 times. Five of those have come in his last 11 starts — 68 innings, 56 hits, 81 strikeouts and a 2.38 ERA.
In each of those starts, he has thrown his curveball more often than during the rest of the season.
Number of Ventura’s first seven strikeouts Saturday that came on curveballs
On Saturday, five of his first seven strikeouts were on curveballs. Seven of the 11 were on offspeed pitches.
“He throws so hard,” Perez says. “If you have to be ready for 98, 99, and then that nasty curveball … if it’s a strike, you see what happens.”
Ventura’s ability to do that has, without exaggeration, changed the Royals’ prospects for the postseason.
He is lined up to start the Division Series, even after the Royals traded three left-handed prospects for Cueto, whose track record is strong enough that he could sign a nine-figure contract in free agency this winter.
The Royals believe that Cueto is fully out of that five-start slump that momentarily put a chill throughout the organization, but if Ventura indeed pitches the playoff opener it’s as clear a sign as the Royals can make that they believe Ventura is the No. 1 starter they signed to that five-year, $23 million contract before the season.
This is a long way from behaving like a punk — that’s one word that was used by many around baseball — in bench-clearing incidents with the White Sox, Angels and A’s.
It’s also a long way from the lost man who gave up 10 hits and six runs to the Pirates on July 20, and then was demoted.
Ventura never actually made the drive to Class AAA Omaha — Jason Vargas’ elbow ligament tore a few days later — but the moment still carries symbolism.
Some of the problem, the Royals believe, was that the title of opening day starter overwhelmed Ventura, and started a wicked snowball that ate up his confidence, mechanics and composure.
What he’s doing now, then, makes Yost shake his head in his office on Saturday.
“Unbelievably good,” he says. “Yeah. Unbelievably good.”
Ventura was so good that, for a moment there, he had everyone from the field to the dugout to the stands to the press box thinking about a no-hitter. Yost was considering a remake to the original plan of keeping Ventura under 100 pitches.
After the game, Ventura said he never thought about the no-hitter, but there was a telling moment in the fifth inning. Eddie Rosario popped up a bunt that took an aggressive spin, the ball landing in fair territory before skidding between Perez’s legs and rolling — barely — foul.
Ventura leaned over the ball, Perez shook his fist and screamed, afterward admitting the thought of the no-hitter was the fuel.
Ventura struck out Rosario — a fastball this time, 99 mph — but the no-hitter died with the next batter, Torii Hunter hitting a clean and sharp single to right field.
Whatever. Ventura will have more chances for a no-hitter. When and if it happens, it’ll be because his curveball is particularly good.
It’s the same reason he’s pitching so well right now, as the Royals transition to the playoffs, a man who was once their greatest concern now one of their greatest strengths.