Yordano Ventura was expected to have a good rookie season, and for the most part, he’s lived up to expectation. He probably started off a little hotter than one may have predicted, but in general, he’s been solid. However, he is coming off the worst start of his career, in which he struck out 0 batters for the first time in years. While the complete lack of strikeouts was new, the trend of a lower strikeout total was not. Following the game, Rany Jazayerli tweeted out the following note:
In the 9 starts before Ventura hurt his elbow, he K’ed 6+ batters six times. In the 9 starts since he’s returned, he’s K’ed 6+ batters once.
— Rany Jazayerli (@jazayerli) July 20, 2014
For a pitcher who has swing-and-miss stuff, Ventura hasn’t gotten as many swings-and-misses lately. Prior to the elbow issue, Ventura struck out 24.9% of the batters he faced. After the elbow issue, he’s struck out 13.4% of the batters he faced, and it doesn’t take a math major to see that’s a significant difference. Dave Eiland insists Ventura is still pitching well enough, and for the most part, he’s right. His ERA- since the injury is 95, which is better than average, even if it’s higher than the pre-injury 71 ERA-.
All of this got me thinking, though, about what may be causing the decrease in Ventura’s strikeouts. Rany’s tweet implies there may still be a lingering issue with Ventura’s elbow, which obviously would be bad. I wanted to see if there were any indicators in Ventura’s Pitchf/x data to suggest he’s hurting, as well as any information that may point to the underlying problem with the strikeout drop. For reference, I used numbers from both Brooks Baseball and FanGraphs for his 9 starts prior to the injury, and the 8 starts plus 1 relief appearance after he returned.
First and foremost, I had to check his velocity. In the start against Houston that created panic amongst the fanbase, Ventura was not throwing the kind of fire we’ve come to expect from him, and if his signature velocity hasn’t fully returned, perhaps it is a nagging elbow. The problem with this theory is that not only did the velocity return, it’s actually been higher since the injury. Prior to that start, the average velocity on his fastball was 98.07 MPH. After that start, it’s been 98.45 MPH. In fact, every pitch has ticked up slightly in velocity, with the exception of his curveball.
So if velocity isn’t the problem, another thing to look at is Ventura’s mechanics. I don’t have a high-speed camera or a biomechanics lab, so this is a bit trickier, but we can easily look at Ventura’s release point to see if anything has changed that might indicate he’s correcting for pain in his elbow. Much like with the velocity, there isn’t enough of a difference to come to any kind of meaningful conclusion. While his average release points have changed slightly, they’re still within a reasonable range. It could be something to continue to monitor as the season progresses, though, as Ventura keeps adding innings onto his arm.
Barring pulling out an MRI comparison – and for the record, the Royals did say Ventura’s MRI came back clean – I don’t think there is any overly credible evidence that points to an elbow injury affecting the young flamethrower.
Now we’re left with an assumption that Ventura has seen has strikeout rate decrease while still healthy, which could be worse, at least in theory. I think it’s safe to say Ventura’s stuff hasn’t worsened, but fewer strikeouts are more easily explained with an injury. A healthy Ventura means I have to do more work to figure out this K conundrum. I’m lazy and don’t want to do that, but I’m kind of pot-committed at this point. Onward.
Taking the lead from Jeff Zimmerman, who wrote a great piece you should read on Ventura’s reliance on his fastball, I wanted to see if Ventura’s changed his pitch mix since the injury. His fastball and sinker usage has remained fairly constant all year, but his other three pitches have seen some changes. Before the injury, Ventura threw curveballs and changeups around 18% of the time, and cutters less than 3% of the time. After the injury, Ventura has thrown 13.7% curveballs, 12.8% changeups, and 10.4% cutters.
Looking at it by category, Ventura’s been throwing more hard stuff, while backing off of his secondary offerings. There could be several reasons for this, some of which we can’t fully know, such as the Royals’ scouting reports and gameplans for certain opponents. We can, however, look at a few other numbers to try and figure out what’s going on.
For instance, if Ventura is getting behind early in the count more often, it would make sense if he’s relying on the hard stuff to get back into better counts. But Ventura’s first-pitch strike rate has actually increased since the injury, so that hypothesis doesn’t seem entirely accurate.
There may be something to that general idea, though. It doesn’t look like opponents are chasing as many Ventura pitches out of the strike zone now (25.8% O-Swing%), as compared to before (28.8% O-Swing%) the injury. He’s also throwing about as many pitches in the strike zone (51.7% Zone% before, 52.3% after), which means there are fewer instances of a batter swinging at a pitch that tends to have a higher whiff rate.
Batters laying off of pitches out of the zone also means Ventura could conceivably be in more hitters’ counts, which could result in him throwing more hard stuff. Additionally, hitters’ counts tend to force the pitcher to throw pitches in the zone, and as noted above, those are pitches on which batters make more contact.
More contact equals fewer whiffs, and fewer whiffs equal fewer strikeouts.
Speaking of whiffs, Ventura’s swinging strike rate has obviously declined overall, falling from 11.9% to 8.8% after his injury, but the difference has been even more noticeable with his curveball and changeup. Prior to that game against the Astros, Ventura’s secondary pitches were generating whiffs almost 19% of the time. Since then, that whiff rate has fallen to just over 11%. He’s getting more whiffs on cutters and sinkers, but a drastic decrease in whiff rate for his other pitches has been too much to overcome.
One potential cause of a decreased whiff rate could be that the pitches aren’t moving as much. If Ventura’s stuff is flattening out, batters aren’t going to swing through pitches as frequently. But the data indicates that’s not the case, as each of his offerings has roughly the same amount of movement now as they did before his last start in May. So that’s at least confirmation that this isn’t a case of Ventura’s stuff losing it’s fiery goodness.
Ventura hasn’t been the same pitcher he was before the scare against Houston, but much of the evidence doesn’t point to an injury as the cause. He isn’t getting as many whiffs with his secondary pitches, and part of that could be that he’s finding himself in more hitters’ counts, meaning batters don’t feel the pressure of chasing pitches that may be out of the zone.
As Zimmerman notes in the link above, he’s also become somewhat predictable in his pitch mix, which gives hitters a better idea of what to expect in certain counts, and when hitters know what to expect, they’re less likely to swing-and-miss.
All of those factors appear to be driving the decrease in strikeouts, but I should also mention that this could simply be some natural regression, and the league adjusting to an extremely talented young pitcher who got off to a great start. They’ve picked up on his tendencies, and now it will be up to Ventura, as well as the coaching staff, to figure out what adjustments they need to make in order to get Ventura back to his previous level of dominance.