Sam Mellinger

On the Yordano Ventura problem, and a grown-up team without time for this

Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Yordano Ventura was walked off the field after drilling Baltimore’s Manny Machado, sparking a brawl during the fifth inning of Tuesday’s game.
Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Yordano Ventura was walked off the field after drilling Baltimore’s Manny Machado, sparking a brawl during the fifth inning of Tuesday’s game. The Associated Press

The biggest problem with Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura is that he exists in a game of failure, and nine years into a professional career, he still cannot handle his sport’s inevitable swings like an adult.

Ventura turned 25 years old last week, and he should be past these things. The Royals thought he was past these things. For whatever it’s worth, I did too. We were all wrong.

Ventura has regressed from his promising rookie season of 2014, his growing notoriety in the game clouding his decision-making and discipline. He is a mess, and an organization that has thrived with relentless loyalty is unsure what to do. The Royals need a bat, and Ventura is the piece that makes the most sense to trade, but he is also the most talented starting pitcher on a team that needs talented starting pitching.

The rub is that the Royals are two American League championships removed from the luxury of endless patience, and after Ventura was in the middle of a fourth unnecessary show of bluster in 14 months in Baltimore on Tuesday, the Royals displayed metaphorical flashing neon signs for anyone paying attention that they are flat sick of Ventura’s petulance and immaturity.

First, catcher Sal Perez didn’t do much to stop Manny Machado from charging the mound and punching Ventura after the hardest pitch of the night went straight into the ribs of the Orioles star. Then, Ventura sat mostly by himself in the dugout, his teammates tired of telling him how to act like a professional. Afterward, manager Ned Yost admitted his team was irritated with the pitcher.

“Probably,” Yost told reporters. “There’s a little frustration when things like this happen, yeah.”

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Two of Yost’s greatest strengths as a manager are his understanding of how his players feel on any given day, and his undying support of them publicly. For Yost, this was as close to a public admonishment as he will ever offer, and if Ventura is smart he will recognize it.

Ventura’s worst moments have tended to follow a troubling pattern. He can’t handle failure and can’t keep his considerable pride between the lines of productivity.

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This is when ego turns to insecurity, and this is the connective tissue with the incidents that have earned Ventura the reputation of, as one former Royal who watches the team closely put it during spring training, “a wannabe Pedro (Martinez) who hasn’t done anything.”

Last year, Mike Trout hit a line drive up the middle and later scored a run, earning a bizarre stare down and later what appeared to be a verbal assault. Ventura cursed Adam Eaton after a simple comebacker to the mound, and there was no shortage of baseball men to point out how Ventura mishandled that soap opera weekend against the A’s last May.

That was he Brett Lawrie Incident, when the A’s third baseman took a reckless slide into Alcides Escobar’s knee, setting off a tiring string of back-and-forth machismo.

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Ventura was starting the next day and had an easy opportunity to hit Lawrie with a pitch, if that’s what he wanted, when the player led off the third inning. Instead, Ventura waited until the next time through, after he’d given up five runs in 3  1/3 innings. He no longer wanted to be out there, and hitting Lawrie was an escape hatch awkwardly cloaked as something else.

The same thing happened in Baltimore, Ventura pulling the parachute after giving up six runs in 4  1/3 innings by plunking the mouthy Machado. The Orioles’ infielder is one of baseball’s best players and carries his own well-earned reputation as a hothead. This particular bench-clearing required two short fuses, and both will be suspended, but it’s safe to say that across baseball it’s Ventura who comes out looking worse.

The outburst comes at a particularly troubling time, too. The Royals are grown up now, the defending World Series champions trying to do it again, and have enough other problems with the starting rotation and elsewhere in the midst of a six-game losing streak.

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Ventura’s career remains stuck in adolescence. The Royals don’t need these tantrums from a guy who’s supposed to be helping.

Within the organization, there was genuine and widespread hope that Ventura had crossed a threshold last year. When the Royals “demoted” him to the minors — Jason Vargas’ elbow popped the next day, so Ventura never actually made it to Omaha — and traded for Johnny Cueto, Ventura responded with a productive screw-you-I’ll-show-you.

He went 9-1 the rest of the way with a 3.10 ERA, striking out 91 in 87 innings. He had responded to the most tangible obstacle of his professional career with 14 starts worthy of the long-term contract the Royals had given him just before opening day.

But everything since then has been a major, frustrating and undeniable regression. His ERA is 5.32 — for perspective, Kyle Davies’ ERA with the Royals was 5.34 — and nobody in the league has issued more walks. His strikeout rate is a career low.

The questions around Ventura have never been about talent. They’ve been about health (so far, so good) and focus (not so much). He has made 82 big-league starts, including nine in the playoffs. This is his ninth season as a professional and fourth in the major leagues. He has lost the excuse of youth.

The Royals were good enough to lap the American League Central and win the World Series last year with Ventura mostly in the background. He exists in a very different context now. The Royals need him now. They need him to grow up, now.

Ventura needs the same thing. Not to save his career, because he’s on a long-term contract and there is always a market for talent. But to save his reputation, to fulfill his enormous potential, and to avoid wasting his considerable ability.

The problem is it’s now been two full years since he’s shown himself capable of more than cameo appearances as a professional. He is going the wrong way, at exactly the time in his career and life he should be maturing.

The Royals, both in the front office and the clubhouse, are increasingly tired of waiting.

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