Most KC Royals observers expected 24-year-old Yordano Ventura to emerge as staff ace after James Shield signed with the San Diego Padres last winter. Instead, Ventura has disappointed with a 3-5 record, and a 4.62 ERA.
What’s gone wrong?
The glib answer is that Ventura is cracking under the pressure. Someone who buys into this reasoning will quickly point to Ventura’s multiple suspensions early this season as proof of his inability to handle the pressure of leading the Kansas City Royals staff.
That narrative is very satisfying to a baseball purist who values decorum, and respect for tradition, from the game’s players. You know, the kind of person who’d say, “See what happens when you don’t respect your opponents? You start to fail. Ventura needs to grow up to lead a staff.”
Such rhetoric seems to validate the game’s time-honored mores, but doesn’t really explain why hitters have been much more successful against Ventura this season.
Looking at Yordano Ventura’s velocity charts offers a more concrete answer: he’s lost about 2 miles per hour off of his fastball.
Take a look at Ventura’s month-by-month velocity breakdowns from 2014 and the first two months of 2015 (Courtesy of Brooks Baseball):
All of Ventura’s offerings look down, which is matched by the tabular data. Yordano Ventura’s fourseam fastball is down to 96.8 from 98.7 in October of 2014. Ventura’s sinker sits at a little under 96 now, and at 97.7 mph last season.
The lost velocity has also affected Ventura’s swing and miss percentages. According to Brooks Baseball’s whiff percentage charts, Ventura is getting a lot less swings and misses on his fourseamer, and sinker. Meanwhile, Ventura’s change and curve are drawing more swings and misses. You can see the Brooks Baseball chart below:
According to Brooks Baseball’s data, hitters swung and missed against his fourseam fastball 10.62 percent of the time in 2014, and only 6.37 percent in 2015. The decline of Ventura’s sinker has been even worse. Last year, hitters swung and missed 6.44 percent of pitches. This year, only 2.44 percent.
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Ventura’s strikeout rate, however, is close to last season’s standard. His K% is 19.8% this season, down only slightly from 20.3% in 2014. Ventura’s been able to maintain his strikeout rate due to improvements in his slow stuff.
So why is Yordano Ventura more hittable this season?
The key appears to be a significant jump in hitters pulling the ball. Last year, opponents pulled the ball 40.3 percent of the time. This year, that number has zoomed to 51.9.
Along with an increased pull percentage, Ventura’s home run rate has ballooned to 0.98 percent from 0.69 in 2014. It’s also not just home runs. Ventura’s slugging percentage against is up to .405 in 2015, up from .358 in 2014.
Part of the reason for this velocity decline could be by design. Ventura has increased the number of two-seam sinkers he throws to 31.7 percent, up from 19.9 percent in 2014. Ventura’s hike in sinker frequency has been matched by a decline in fourseam fastballs: down to 37.4 percent from 53.9 percent in his rookie campaign.
While this shift has produced more ground balls (52.7% of batted balls, up from 47.6%), it has also allowed more extra base hits.
Maybe, Yordano Ventura needs to go back to the hard stuff.