Something Is Very, Very Wrong With Yordano Ventura
Yordano Ventura's start to the 2016 season is, I'd imagine, a bit like training a puppy.
With a young whipper snapper, you expect some rockiness along the way. He's going to pee on the carpet every now and then, and you just have to deal with it. The end result -- a happy, playful, loving ball of joy with a sick fastball -- would be worth some minor snafus.
The key is that you want to see progression. After a few weeks, the expectation becomes that the puppy will stop trying to have "fun time" with your leg and leaving unexpected presents in your shoes. You have to be patient, but that patience is generally rewarded with some real, positive steps in the right direction.
It's when that progression doesn't come that you start to worry. That's where we're at with Ventura.
If you think back to last year, Ventura struggled through his first 17 starts, earning himself a trip to Triple-A at one point. His 5.29 ERA over those 17 starts was much higher than his current mark of 4.62, and that was with a sample size that was 10 starts longer than where he's currently at. Clearly, last year's start should be more concerning than this year's, right?
Looking at how things stand right now, that thought couldn't be much further from the truth. It's time to start worrying big time about the Kansas City Royals' former budding star.
Ventura's ERA is certainly not great, Bob, but it doesn't begin to tell the story of just how much Ventura has struggled this year.
There are currently 116 pitchers in the league who have thrown at least 30 innings on the season. Only one of them has more walks than strikeouts, and that's Ventura. The closest person to him is Mike Pelfrey, a man in very serious danger of losing his job in the Detroit Tigers' rotation. Ventura has a bit of extra leeway due to his age and upside, but that's not company he'll likely want to keep.
Looking at that same group of 116 pitchers, Ventura has the highest skill-interactive ERA (SIERA) in the league, and his gap above the rest of the pack is bordering on impressive. His SIERA is 6.00. There are only seven other pitchers above 5.00, and the second-bestmark comes from the Chicago White Sox's Mat Latos at 5.46. Ventura's a full half run worse than the guy in front of him, a larger gap than there is between Latos and the pitcher with the ninth-worst SIERA.
Ventura has had issues with walks in the past, but he's usually been able to make up for them by racking up some strikeouts. Those aren't working for him this year, either.
This table compares some of Ventura's strikeout numbers from last year to this year. Swinging-strike rate is the percentage of strikes a pitcher gets via the swing-and-miss, and contact rate is the percentage of swings on which a batter makes contact. We're using these two measures because they can both help illustrate whether a player's strikeout numbers are sustainable or not. In Ventura's case, his strikeout rate appears sustainable, though not necessarily in the way we'd like.
|Season||Strikeout Rate||Swinging-Strike Rate||Contact Rate|
Those numbers would be worrisome for any pitcher. But when it's a guy with major walk issues, it's DEFCON 1.
All of this should make it fairly obvious that something's up with Ventura. Whether it be an injury, a dip in confidence, or anything, he's not the same pitcher he was last year. Let's keep digging to see if we can find a root cause to know more definitively whether these issues figure to persist.
The first thing we'd look for in trying to see what's wrong with a starting pitcher would be his velocity, and we already start to see a potential root cause for Ventura's struggles.
Ventura's velocity is down -- sometimes significantly -- on all of his pitches, according to PITCHf/x data. Again, let's put this year's marks side-by-side with those from last year to show just how drastic the fall-off is.
A dip in velocity on a curveball or changeup could indicate a change in the way Ventura is throwing the pitch, but the velocity is also down on each of his fastballs. That will help explain the decrease in strikeouts, and it may also explain why batters are swinging at fewer of Ventura's pitches outside the zone.
In 2015, batters chased 29.3% of the pitches Ventura tossed that were outside the strike zone, just a bit below the league-wide mark for starters of 30.5%. This year, though, it's all the way down to 21.8%, the third-lowest mark in the league among the starters with at least 30 innings. Guys simply aren't swinging as often, and that has led to fewer strikeouts and more walks. As we saw above, even when they do swing, they're making more contact. Basically, everything about Ventura is a giant red flag. To say that it's time to start worrying would be a gross understatement.
Potentially the most disturbing aspect with Ventura is that things are progressing in the wrong direction. In Wednesday's start against the New York Yankees, Ventura had his worst swinging-strike rate and contact rate of the entire season, and the Yankees' chase rate was all the way down to 16.7%. Sure, he got a quality start and a win, but three walks to one strikeout is anything but quality.
If Yordano Ventura were a puppy in training, you'd be signing him up for obedience classes, calling in specialists, and requesting an exorcision to extract the demons. Anything. Not even that may be able to cure what's ailing him right now.
Ventura meets every red flag that you look for in a pitcher. His velocity is down, his plate-discipline numbers have dropped dramatically, and he's passing out walks like nobody's business. His ERA may not reflect it yet, but he is essentially a broken commodity in his current state.
It's hard to tell what the Royals' best course of action would be, but they need to do something before the situation gets any worse. Whether that means allowing Ventura to work on his craft in the minors or giving him a few weeks to rest up, the status quo isn't working, and it's only a matter of time until his traditional stats start to reflect that.
The only people who know what the next step is in trying to right this situation would be the Royals and Ventura himself. But until they take those steps, make adjustments, and try to get Ventura back to what he was doing last year, he'll essentially be a statistical landmine, waiting for his performance to match what his peripheral stats are saying he truly is.