Young right-hander's pitches, poise give Royals another weapon in rotation
KANSAS CITY -- Before the start of the season, you could have confidently predicted that the pitching staff of the Kansas City Royals would be one of the best in the American League.
Now, it can be safely suggested that the Royals' pitching may be even better than expected. The variable would be Yordano Ventura, a 22-year-old with dynamic stuff and pitching maturity well beyond his years.
There was nothing wrong with Kansas City's pitching without Ventura. The Royals led the AL in team ERA last season. The club's 43-27 record after the All-Star break established the Royals' potential. And there was relatively little turnover on the staff coming into 2014; Ervin Santana out, Jason Vargas in appeared to be roughly a wash.
But the addition of Ventura to the starting rotation adds an element of electricity to the entire undertaking. Ventura had three late-season starts for the Royals in 2013. In one of them, he threw a pitch at 102.8 mph, the fastest pitch recorded by a starting Major League pitcher last season.
After having his first scheduled start rained out, Ventura made his 2014 debut Tuesday night against the Tampa Bay Rays at Kauffman Stadium. He did not disappoint. In fact, he lived up to the best of his advance billing.
Ventura pitched six scoreless innings, and yes, he reached triple digits with his fastball on occasion. But this pitcher is more than a radar-gun phenomenon.
"The thing that impresses me most is that for a real young guy, he doesn't let the game speed up on him," Royals manager Ned Yost said. "He's got great composure, continues to compete. There are times when he'll fly open, but he's also very quick to make adjustments. That is going to be key for his development at the Major League level."
Ventura's development, even at this early stage, is already impressive. He gave up two hits and no walks against the Rays, while striking out six. But when you looked inside the at-bats, it seemed even better than that.
After a first-inning ground-ball single to Rays leadoff hitter David DeJesus, Ventura threw a 100-mph fastball on a 2-2 pitch to the 2013 AL Rookie of the Year Award winner, Wil Myers. Myers managed to foul it. Ventura then struck out Myers swinging with a pitch at 89. In three at-bats against Ventura, Myers struck out three times.
In the second inning, Ventura threw a 101-mph fastball to Desmond Jennings, then got him to bounce out to third. The heat was impressive, but what was equally impressive was Ventura's ability to put away hitters with offspeed pitches to precise locations.
With one out in the fourth, Ben Zobrist doubled, and the Rays had a runner in scoring position for the first -- and it turned out, last -- time while Ventura was on the mound. Ventura struck out Evan Longoria, the Rays' cleanup hitter, freezing him with a back-door changeup that just picked up the outside corner.
Ventura's only competitive problem was that Tampa Bay's Chris Archer was giving up nothing of value to the Royals, either. So when Ventura departed the game after six innings and 95 pitches, he left a scoreless tie.
The Royals gave up a run in the ninth and lost, 1-0. But a difficult defeat couldn't overshadow the promise that Ventura displayed.
"Ventura was really throwing good fastballs, triple-digits at times," Yost said. "Threw some good breaking balls, but really had a good changeup tonight to keep them off balance.
"What we like about him is that for a young guy, for the most part, he commands three pitches. He's got three outstanding pitches."
Compounding the degree of difficulty for Ventura on Tuesday night was the fact that he had not pitched since an exhibition game on March 29. Plus, it was a chilly, windy night at Kauffman Stadium, and Ventura, from the Dominican Republic, could not have a world of experience with this climate.
"Even though there was a lot of time between pitching, that's my job," Ventura said, in comments that were interpreted by his fellow starting pitcher, Bruce Chen. "No matter how many days I get off, I have to do my job. I'm just glad I was able to do a good job tonight.
"I felt really good and [catcher Salvador Perez] called a really good game, and my defense helped me out a lot."
The radar-gun readings pleasantly amaze the rest of us, but Ventura gets no special kick from velocity. This is another sign of his pitching maturity. When he is asked about whether he is conscious of how hard he is throwing the ball, he indicates that he has other priorities.
"Every time I'm on the mound, I just concentrate on making good pitches," Ventura said. "And every time I throw a pitch, I try to locate it so every pitch is a better quality pitch."
The future -- short term, medium term, long term -- looks extraordinarily bright for Ventura. And because of that, the Royals, a team with strong pitching last season, could be even better in that department this season.