Yordano Ventura is quickly becoming must-watch television.
On Tuesday night the 22-year-old made his season debut for the Kansas City Royals, nearly a week after his scheduled start was rained out.
Facing the Tampa Bay Rays, Ventura proved why he’s one of baseball’s most promising young pitchers, as the right-hander scattered two hits over six scoreless innings and recorded six strikeouts without issuing a walk. As the Royals lost the game 1-0 on a James Loney RBI in the ninth, Ventura didn't receive a decision in his first start.
As expected, he showcased an elite fastball velocity, topping out at 101 mph twice in the outing and sitting in the high-90s for the duration of his start. However, it was Ventura's ability to sequence and command his changeup (and to a lesser extent his curveball), and consistently work ahead in the count that surely left onlookers believing they witnessed a star in the making.
2013 in Review
Ventura was assigned to Double-A Northwest Arkansas to open the 2013 season, where he posted a 2.34 ERA and a 74-20 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 57.2 innings (11 starts).
As a result of his success, the right-hander was moved up to Triple-A Omaha in the middle of June and pitched well in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League. Appearing in 15 games (14 starts) at the more advanced level, Ventura registered a 3.74 ERA and 81-33 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 77 innings.
As a result of Ventura’s success across both levels, the Royals promoted him to the major leagues on Sept. 17 to start against the division-rival Cleveland Indians in the heat of a playoff race. In his Major League debut, the 22-year-old flamethrower allowed one run on five hits and two walks over 5.2 impressive frames. He struck out three batters in the outing, and did so behind a fastball that averaged 97.7 mph and registered as high as 102.5 mph, according to BrooksBaseball.net.
Ventura ultimately made three starts with the Kansas City Royals during the final month regular season, and the young right-hander didn’t disappoint with a 3.52 ERA, .224 batting average against and 11-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 15.1 innings.
The Season Debut
Ventura’s season debut on Tuesday night was an extension of his performance this spring—which is obviously a good thing—as the 22-year-old showcased his electric, bat-missing arsenal, but also a legitimate feel for pitching and getting outs.
Ventura sat between 96 and 99 mph with his fastball throughout the game, topping out at 101 mph in the second inning and later in the sixth, but he lacked command of the pitch in the early innings. Therefore, it was great to see the right-hander show confidence in his changeup—which featured 9 to 12 mph velocity separation compared to his fastball. He featured the pitch in the first inning, using it to strike out Wil Myers and Ben Zobrist swinging, both on 2-2 counts.
In the subsequent frames, Ventura located his heater more effectively, throwing it for a strike early in the count and then using it to induce weak contact when ahead. Specifically, Ventura generated six outs (out of 11 batters faced) with his fastball through the first three innings, including four outfield flyouts, two groundouts and a popout on the infield.
Ventura picked up two more strikeouts using his secondary arsenal in the fourth inning, facing the heart of Tampa Bay’s order for the second time. He got Wil Myers to swing through a nasty, full-count changeup and then caught Evan Longoria looking at a 1-2 curveball. The right-hander recorded his fifth strikeout the following inning when he got Desmond Jennings to swing through a 1-2 changeup, then retired Myers (for the third time in the game) looking at a 3-2 changeup to end the sixth.
With Ventura’s electric fastball-changeup combination, he doesn’t always need to have an effective third pitch in a given start. The elite velocity on Ventura’s fastball allows him to consistently avoid barrels, even when he’s pitching behind in the count or catches too much of the plate. In his outing on Tuesday, Rays’ hitters fouled off 12 fastballs, suggesting that Ventura’s difficult to time regardless of location, and he was able to keep them off the pitch by executing the changeup and mixing in the occasional breaking ball.
Speaking of Ventura’s breaking ball, it wasn’t as sharp on Tuesday night as it was in the spring, and he struggled to find a consistent release point early in the game. However, that didn’t cause the 22-year-old to completely shy away from using the pitch; he turned to the pitch more often in the fifth and sixth innings, with 10 of his 19 curveballs coming in that span. Specifically, the right-hander used the pitch heavily in his sixth and final inning of work, throwing it on seven of his 12 pitches.
Ventura’s undersized, wiry frame will always raise questions about his long-term durability, though his transformation from a thrower to a pitcher over the last season-plus has helped ease some of the doubt. Plus, given his age and quick rise through the minor leagues, Ventura’s high-water mark for innings pitched in a season is only 150, which he amassed last season between, Double-A, Triple-A and the major leagues. Therefore, it was somewhat surprising when the Royals announced prior to the season that the young right-hander would be allowed to go 180 to 200 innings this season.
Throwing 180 innings this season (assuming that this total doesn’t factor into a possible trip to the playoffs) is a realistic workload for Ventura, especially considering he spent the offseason and spring training in anticipation of cracking the Royals’ Opening Day rotation. Furthermore, with that innings limit in mind, the organization should be able to occasionally skip Ventura’s starts here and there over the course of the season to offer him additional rest. But 200 innings, well, that’s a whole different story.
In Ventura’s season debut, the right-hander confirmed that he has the stuff and poise to be a starter in the major leagues, even when his command and full arsenal isn’t at its best. Yet, that same notion also speaks to how good this kid can be with the right development and ongoing refinement to both his command and secondary arsenal. Basically, the sky is the limit.
Xander Bogaerts may be the early favorite to win the Rookie of the Year Award in the American League, but after Ventura’s outing on Tuesday, it’s clear the 22-year-old isn’t far behind.
*All stats and videos courtesy of MLB.com.