Back-to-back double digit strikeout games catch my attention, so when Yordano Ventura finished up his outing on Monday night against the Arkansas Travelers with ten strikeouts in six innings (after dispatching ten batters against Springfield last week), he didn’t just catch my attention, he demanded it.
Obviously, at this point we all know Ventura, the short, wiry fireballer who landed in the Royals top five prospects this offseason. He’s been making a steady ascent through the Royals minor leagues starting with a successful 2010 where he struck out more than a quarter of the batters he faced in Rookie ball as a 19-year-old, then a thoroughly dominant turn at Wilmington to start last year that landed him in Double A by season’s end.
He had an impressive spring training where he struck out seven batters in 11.2 innings, walking just two, and the Royals sang his praises throughout. That success has carried over into 2013’s Double A season where he’s racked up 29.1 innings for Northwest Arkansas with 43 strikeouts (13.2 K/9). Even better, he’s only walked 11 batters. He’s given up one homer in a power-friendly Texas League.
Coming into the season, there were questions about if he could be a starter or if he’d be relegated to the bullpen. The Royals want to keep him lined up as a starter until he shows that he can’t cut it there, which is a good approach. Ventura’s biggest weapon is his fastball, which he can dial up to triple digits deep into games – Baseball Prospectus named it the best fastball in the minors before the season started. He gets tremendous arm speed with his delivery despite his small stature. He’s put on some weight so the 5’11” 140 pounds he was listed at in 2010 isn’t quite so alarming. He’s not the prototypical starter, but many scouts and analysts are starting to believe he could handle the workload.
His curveball is developing into a huge pitch for him as well. The fastball/curveball combination would be lethal if he were to end up in the back end of a bullpen, but he’s making strides towards average in a recent start, according to a Jason Parks scouting report.
If both secondary pitches develop, he could have a brutal curveball as another out pitch along with a good enough changeup to prevent anyone from sitting on his two primary offerings. To me, a starter really has to have at least three regular pitches, to get through lineups and as an alternative if his best stuff isn’t there with a key pitch.
He will have to prove that he can handle the workload. His career high in innings was last year when he reached 109.1. Obviously, he’ll need to increase that at some point if he were to be taken seriously as a starting candidate. And then he’ll have to continue to maintain a heavy workload to where he’ll be able to make 30 starts on a big league roster. His stuff is so electric that it’s tempting to let him settle into a bullpen role, but if he can still get the same dominance from his pitches with more work, 180 innings is more valuable than 70.
So far, he hasn’t been pushed too hard in the early days of the season. Monday’s start was the highest pitch count he’d reached in 2013 when he hit 98 pitches. To an extent he may always have higher pitch counts. Strikeout pitchers tend to use up more pitches because they’re trying to miss bats and their stuff is good enough to miss bats. But he’ll also give up less fluke hits that happen to find a whole since less balls will end up in play. It’s rare for a batter to score on a strikeout, but they can score after reaching from a seeing eye single on a perfect pitch they happened to get in the right spot.
That being said, Ventura’s averaging 17.18 pitches per inning this year, which is still on the high end, but one or two more efficient starts can settle that number down.
Right now, Ventura is overmatching the Texas League. By the end of the month, he could easily be pushing the Royals to give him a look in Omaha to see if his dominance continues. He’s showing right now that he’s ready for the tryout.