Yordano Ventura Re-Emerging as a Key Cog for Championship-Hopeful Royals

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterAugust 28, 2015

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It's hard to know what you're supposed to call a comeback anymore. But with Yordano Ventura, the term is sounding more and more appropriate.

It was only a couple of weeks ago that the Kansas City Royals demoted their 24-year-old fireballer down to the minors for the express purpose of clearing up a classic case of bad pitching. That didn't end up lasting long thanks to an injury to Jason Vargas, but the message was clear: The Royals didn't view Ventura as a guy who could help a starting rotation that needed help.

Well, now look at him.

Ventura made his 21st start of 2015 on Thursday afternoon against the Baltimore Orioles at Kauffman Stadium, and it saw him lead the Royals to a 5-3 victory with six shutout innings. He walked four, but also allowed only two hits and struck out a career-high 11.

Courtesy of the Royals, here's a brief tease:

Kansas City Royals @Royals

.@YordanoVentura looked like an Ace in today’s dominant outing. http://t.co/sPfUn0tF6N #ForeverRoyal http://t.co/hYCxOcqRW6

A brief tease doesn't tell the whole story, but in this case it sums it up quite well. As Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports observed, Ventura looked more dominant on Thursday than he had at any point all season:

Jeff Passan @JeffPassan

Haven't seen Yordano Ventura's stuff this good all year. Sitting 97-99, hit 100 10 times, devastating curve, great change. 9 Ks in 4 IP.

Given the way he's been going lately, you could swear Ventura was building toward a performance like this. He was also strong in his three prior starts, and all told has allowed just three earned runs while striking out 32 over 25 innings in his last four outings.

Like that, an ERA that stood at a wretched 5.19 at the time of Ventura's demotion is down to 4.41. Certainly, he looks a lot more like the guy who got everyone all hyped up with a 3.20 ERA as a rookie in 2014.

And for the Royals, this couldn't be happening at a better time.

Aug 27, 2015; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Yordano Ventura (30) throws a warm-up pitch before the game against the Baltimore Orioles at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

You don't get to 78-49 like the Royals have with a long list of weaknesses. But though their list has indeed been quite short, the one weakness they've had all along has had trouble hiding. Their starting pitching hasn't been great for the most part, posting just a 4.27 ERA.

Of course, things are more hopeful now than they were a couple of weeks ago.

The trade for Johnny Cueto brought the arrival of a tried-and-true ace, the kind of thing that tends to come in handy in October. But if one dominant starter is good for October, two are better. And the way Ventura is pitching, you can't help but wonder if the Royals have found their No. 2.

His results can speak for themselves, but the more pressing matter is how those results have come about. To this end, the answer could relate directly to Cueto's arrival.

Orlin Wagner/Associated Press

"I believe Johnny has had an impact on Ventura in the last three or four starts," Royals skipper Ned Yost told Jeffrey Flanagan of MLB.com. "I know that [pitching coach] Dave Eiland doesn't tell him anything different than Johnny Cueto does. But sometimes when you hear something enough times from your pitching coach, but then you hear it from a teammate, it sinks in. Cueto definitely has had an impact."

Regarding what exactly has gone from Cueto's mouth to Ventura's ear, well, none of us are flies on the wall, so we can't really know. Darn.

But good news! With some effort, it's not overly difficult to trace Ventura's hot pitching down to some tangible improvements.

In cases like these, one's mind immediately turns to the pitcher's mechanics. And if we use Brooks Baseball to look at how Ventura's release point has progressed in 2015, it looks as though he's achieved greater consistency in his last few starts:

Image courtesy of BrooksBaseball.net.

What you're looking at is a portrait of a guy whose arm slot has been utterly inconsistent. Whereas Ventura was quite consistent in 2014, his release point has been raising and lowering on pretty much a start-to-start basis in 2015.

Up until recently, that is. Starting on August 11 against the Detroit Tigers, Ventura embarked on a three-start stretch where his release point barely moved from the 5.8-6.1 foot range. And according to the raw PITCHf/x data at Brooks Baseball, he was in that range once again on Thursday.

As for how Ventura has benefited from this apparent mechanical consistency, it would appear that we can at least narrow things down to a tidy "More stuff!" narrative.

Ventura's Fastball Velocity in 2015
First 17 Starts96.696.6
Next 3 Starts97.497.0
Brooks Baseball

Ventura was already throwing hard before his last few starts, as his average fastball checked in around 96.5 miles per hour. But he was up over 97 miles per hour in three starts prior to Thursday, and then he tortured the Orioles with even more velocity. His average two-seamer was 98.7 miles per hour, and his average four-seamer sat at 99.6 and touched 101.5. 

This would be a case of Ventura turning the clock back to 2014, when he easily threw harder than any other qualified starter. And while velocity isn't everything, it's definitely something. The more you have, the bigger your margin for error becomes.

In other good news, Ventura isn't even relying as much on his heat. His curveball, in particular, has come roaring to life. 

Before Ventura got hot, he used his curveball less than 20 percent of the time. But in three starts prior to Thursday, it accounted for about 25 percent of his pitches and also 14 of his 21 strikeouts. This pattern of dominance continued against the Orioles. Ventura threw 32 curveballs out of 98 pitches. Nine of those resulted in whiffs. And by my count, his curveball also finished off nine of his 11 strikeouts.

Mind you, this shouldn't be taken to mean that Ventura is completely fixed. You'd think that his improved mechanical consistency would afford him more strikes, but it hasn't. His strike percentage has only gone from 62 percent to 63 percent, and he's walked 12 in his last 25 innings.

But this is OK. It's good enough for now that Ventura is a much more competent and seemingly more confident pitcher than he was in early August, and that it all stems from real improvements. Though they've come in a small sample size, the results should encourage the Royals.

There's plenty of valley left to go between now and the arrival of the postseason. But if Ventura can keep pitching like this, the Royals are going to enter October with a one-two punch nobody will want to face.

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.

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