Into super-scout Art Stewart’s seventh decade in baseball and first 44 years with the Royals, the traditional “20-80” rating system of prospects had sufficed.
As applied to a pitcher’s fastball, the top-of-the-scale 80 connotes a fastball consistently near 100 mph, with great movement.
“Elite,” he said. “Now you’re up with the greats when you get into that.”
This spring, the stalwart Stewart took his customary seat behind home plate, reflexively aiming his radar gun at every pitch before charting it.
And he routinely observed a phenomenon that was literally off his charts when Yordano Ventura was pitching toward earning the No. 5 spot in the Royals’ rotation.
This was a blur beyond even what Stewart saw just a year ago.
“I think Ventura’s revolutionized the game here, because he charts consistently in that 100-102 (mph) area,” Stewart said, chuckling but not joking. “So we had our charts revised. We got brand-new cards printed out. We now have a ‘90’ fastball in our grading system.”
Now, some of what the optimistically inclined Stewart says might seem reminiscent of “The Curious Case of Sidd Finch,” George Plimpton’s epic 1985 April Fool’s story in Sports Illustrated.
The tall tale of a mysterious New York Mets prospect suggested he could throw 168 mph and that the Mets scouting report rated his fastball a 9 (or 90) on a scale that maxed out at 8 (80).
But April 1 is still days away. Ventura is slight compared to the hulking Finch. And Ventura flashed that he’s plenty real in three starts late last season in part by throwing the fastest pitch (102.8 mph) recorded by a starter in the major leagues in 2013.
Still, Ventura’s arrival on the scene remains a novelty, his background hazy.
“Where did they get that guy?” Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington wondered after Ventura confounded his team with six scoreless innings a few days ago.
Samaná, Dominican Republic, is known for its mountains, beaches, tourism, fishing and annual migration of North Atlantic humpback whales. It’s also the home of major-league players such as Alfredo Figaro, Hanley Ramirez and Wily Peralta.
“They all have good arms, so I don’t know if there’s something in the water,” Rene Francisco, the Royals assistant general manager for international operations, said with a laugh.
In fact, the water does account for some of Ventura’s strength and flexibility. Swimming in the calm ocean, Francisco said, always has been part of Ventura’s life. Today it is part of a workout regimen.
That morsel passes as a revelation. Little is publicly known about the background of Ventura, who only in the last few days began trying to talk directly with English-speaking reporters instead of summoning a translator.
There is this, too: Through some combination of wishing to provide better for his divorced mother, and feeling he was being mistreated in school, Ventura was about 14 when he dropped out and began working in construction, Francisco said Ventura had told him.
Still, he loved baseball. Ventura wasn’t big or physical, but he thrived against older competition and was so good he was “the talk of the town,” said Francisco, who met him at age 17 when he was ushered to the Royals’ Dominican Republic Academy by then-scout and administrator Pedro Silverio.
Silverio, now out of baseball, was described thusly in a 2000 article in The Star about the Royals’ enterprise in the Dominican.
“A bookish-looking man with his eyeglasses and notebooks, he roams the country in his gold Camry, trunk heavy with radar guns, stopwatches and baseballs. In small towns and urban ghettos, Pedro’s life revolves around finding the next star.”
Until Stewart became scouting director in 1984, he said, the Royals had “three visas and no Latin program, and things were starting to perk up over there.”
Stewart recalled persuading then-GM John Schuerholz to begin investing in the area, and with about $10,000 for the operation, Stewart and a few scouts planted a flag at a stadium in Santiago.
Then as now, teams would have 30 days to work with a prospect and then have to let them go or sign them.
But in the early days, Stewart said with a laugh, opposing scouts would climb into the trees that surrounded the stadium outfield. Then they’d try to poach away players as they walked between the stadium and where they were being housed.
So the Royals moved 22 miles down the road to Salcedo and got enough money to enclose the living quarters and other facilities for the prospects within the stadium.
“That’s how we got it off the ground,” said Stewart, for whom a building and a stadium at the Royals’ complex there is named.
Through ever-changing regimes, the Royals’ international strategy had regressed over the years.
But when Dayton Moore took over as GM in 2006, he considered it an imperative operation “on par with our top priorities.”
“I don’t believe you can have a championship-caliber organization,” he said Wednesday, “unless you have a vibrant, functioning and producing international program centered in Latin America.”
The Glass family, Moore said, understood that and allowed him to liberally expand the number of scouts and the broader expedition. Part of the reason the Royals’ farm system has received rave reviews the last few years is because of this element of it.
As Francisco remembers it, Silverio brought Ventura to the academy. They simply watched him pitch, and perhaps even that day signed him for $28,000.
That seems a remarkable bargain now, but at 5 feet 11 and just 140 pounds, Ventura didn’t necessarily radiate “can’t-miss.”
“The way the ball came off his hand was really, really special,” Francisco said.
Ventura spent the first 18 months of his career at the academy, getting steeped in fundamentals and what Moore called “the proper foundation” under director Victor Baez.
Still, Ventura’s progress seemed halting at times. At this time last year, he’d pitched only six games above Class A ball. But at each phase, he was getting more and more rope and more and more refinement.
At the Royals’ Kane County farm club in 2011, for instance, Ventura couldn’t resist overthrowing.
So pitching coach Jim Brower took to hooking him if he didn’t restrain himself or retrain himself. Even after it got to a point where Brower would whistle a warning from the dugout, Ventura got pulled at times for just that reason.
But he was learning, Moore and Francisco said, from everyone he was around.
Then, last season, everything started fast-forwarding. And suddenly the Royals’ possibilities and reality converged in Ventura’s three exhilarating starts in September.
So that’s where Ventura comes from. Where he goes will be a substantial reflection of Moore’s regime and indicator of the immediate future of the franchise.
That’s not only because Ventura represents a jarring potential first (no homegrown Royals pitcher has enjoyed a sustained period of success as a starter since Moore took over). He also has to be a pioneer for more.
Considering the relatively small window in which the Royals will be able to afford to keep Ventura and the soon-to-follow likes of Kyle Zimmer and perhaps Danny Duffy, they need them to produce fast when they do arrive.
If this is a season defined by the notion of “if not now, when?” how Ventura performs matters the same way.
“It doesn’t matter what market you’re in, if you want to win consistently you have to develop your own players,” Moore said. “Building your team through free agency is a flawed way to do business.
“You certainly have to supplement your team with free-agent players or pitchers now and then, but ultimately you have to build your team from within.”
In selecting Ventura, 22, to the starting rotation, the Royals essentially have declared that even they know the time frame for patience and baby steps and development has expired.
They’ve seen him graduate, they believe, from thrower to pitcher, with more sophistication and composure, not to mention what Stewart calls a “devastating” curveball.
That doesn’t mean everything will be smooth now, of course.
“He’s going to have a lot of ups and down along the way; he’s going to have to manage failure and really learn to compete at the major-league level,” Moore said.
Moore later added: “No matter how good your stuff is, you’re still going to have to make pitches.”
This stuff, though, is pretty good. It’s already off Stewart’s charts and potentially even the stuff of legend if not myth.