Blazing fastball will buy Royals’ Ventura time to improve skillset

Yordano Ventura yields just two hits with six K's in six scoreless innings vs. the Rays on Tuesday.

Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Last year, out of every starting pitcher who started at least one major-league game, Kansas City’s Yordano Ventura threw the hardest average fastball. His lead over second place was more than a full mile per hour.

This year, out of every starting pitcher who’s started at least one major-league game, Ventura has thrown the hardest average fastball. His lead over second place is almost two full miles per hour.

Fastball velocity gets a guy noticed. You could probably count on one hand the number of starting pitchers in the world capable of reaching triple digits during a game. Fastball velocity generates hype … and oohs and aahs. A good fastball allows a starter to get through the door, and down the road it buys a starter extra chances.

But as Toronto veteran Mark Buehrle demonstrates every five days, there’s a lot more to pitching than how hard you can throw. The questions with Ventura have nothing to do with his fastball; they have to do with everything else.

In January, FanGraphs ranked Ventura as the Royals’ second-best prospect, behind only Kyle Zimmer. Ventura throws a fastball, a curveball and a changeup, but his secondary pitches could use more development if he is to unlock the extent of his potential.

Armed with that incredible fastball, last year Ventura struck out just 11 of 64 batters in the majors. Before that, down in Triple-A, he allowed more than a hit per inning. Steps forward haven’t been necessary for Ventura to pitch in the majors, but there’s a difference between pitching and pitching well.

AROUND THE HORN

For Ventura, the goal is for 2014 to be a year of improvement, or refinement. After a promising spring, he got off to a wonderful start Tuesday, when he blanked the Rays for six innings. Though it was unfortunate the Royals lost 1-0 — the Rays scored the game’s lone run in the top of the ninth — Ventura showed early signs of development that could bode well for the coming years.

Just 60 percent of his pitches were fastballs, after throwing 76 percent fastballs in limited action last September. Ventura showed greater confidence in his other pitches, and confidence is a difficult thing to fake.

Within Tuesday’s start, there were glimpses of three different future Yordano Venturas. A fourth future Ventura would be a hurt one, and that’s not impossible, but that’s also depressing and pointless to speculate about. Ventura will either get hurt or he won’t. As long as he’s pitching, he’ll become something, and three different somethings were on display at different times.

One future Yordano Ventura was on display to lead off, when David DeJesus batted in the top of the first:

This Ventura just ends up sticking with his fastball. This Ventura doesn’t see enough development in his other stuff, so he tries to lean on his heat. It can work, given command, but it also makes things easy for the opposing hitters to time.

That velocity ceases to be blow-away speed, and it’s instead expected speed. There’s a reason people keep expecting Cincinnati’s Tony Cingrani to struggle — it’s incredibly difficult to get by as a one-pitch starter, provided that one pitch isn’t a knuckleball. After seeing Ventura’s fastball, DeJesus looked for it and lined it.

A second future Yordano Ventura squared off against Matt Joyce in the top of the second:

This Ventura throws three pitches. He’s willing to use them all within a single plate appearance, but he likes his odds best when he’s ahead in the count. Though the curveball and change are there, they’re unreliable. The curveball frequently ends up being spiked. When throwing the changeup, Ventura sometimes flies open.

So despite the presence of a second and third pitch, they’re sufficiently inconsistent that hitters mostly sit fastball, and Ventura would be incapable of taking enough advantage of that.

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Then there’s the third future Yordano Ventura. Tuesday saw a lot of this Ventura, but we’ll highlight a showdown with Evan Longoria in the top of the fourth:

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Here we have the unfair, unhittable Yordano Ventura, the Yordano Ventura people think he ought to be. This Ventura throws three pitches, and he changes the eye level with his fastball. He spots his changeup, down, and he’s willing to use it in even counts and against same-handed hitters. With the curveball, Ventura isn’t just looking for swings and misses at balls — the curve can also be an in-zone weapon, to freeze the opponent and render him helpless.

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The second future Yordano Ventura would end up in a lot of long at-bats. The third future Yordano Ventura would also see some long at-bats, but he’d be ahead and in control in more of them.

The third future Yordano Ventura covers 85-100 mph, with the ability to move all his pitches around. This Ventura isn’t impossible to hit, but he’s a probable ace, and if Tuesday’s any indication, that Ventura might be sprouting.

So much rests on the non-fastballs. Ventura tried to make a lot happen with them Tuesday. Below is a chart of all of his changeups and curveballs:

venturapitchmap

There were times he flew open or lost his grip. Those pitches up are mistakes, and the pitches up and in the zone are bad mistakes. But Ventura showed growth, continuing a trend. If you’re always moving forward, you’re always approaching your potential.

From the Kansas City Star’s Pete Grathoff:

"That’s what we like about him," (Kansas City) manager Ned Yost said. "For a young guy, he commands, for the most part, three pitches. He can throw a fastball, a curveball and a changeup for a strike. He will at times have issues with his breaking ball, but there are little mechanical issues that he can make an adjustment and get right back on it. He’s got three great pitches."

From MLB.com’s Dick Kaegel:

Ventura, though, has learned to throw his breaking ball and changeup for strikes, and he understands that such variety will be the spice of his baseball life.

Right now, the story with Ventura is about his blazing fastball. The heat will buy him some time to try to smooth out the rest of his skillset. Down the road, the story could be about the amazing pitcher he is, and though you can never take that for granted, Ventura’s already shown greater confidence in, and control, of his secondary weapons.

There’s nothing wrong with the primary one. In his first start of 2014, Ventura showed flashes of multiple future selves. The most common was the dominant one, and all the future is another day’s present.