It didn’t take long for Yordano Ventura to break some records. In just the third inning of his first career start last September, the 22 year old righthander reeled off a fastball that Pitch F’X registered at 101.9 MPH. That is the fastest offering by a starter PITCH f/x has ever recorded, and according to ESPN stats and info, is the fastest pitch thrown by a major league starter in the last five seasons. It was harder than any pitch ever thrown by Stephen Strasburg, Matt Harvey, or Ubaldo jiminez. Ventura’s fastball is simply one of the best pitch in the minor leagues right now, listed as a 75 on 20-80 scouting scale by MLB.com’s Jonathan Mayo, and he will look to use that pitch to dominate the majors next season. The only question is whether he will be looking from the rotation or the bullpen.
The problem for Ventura can be illustrated squarely from that one fastball. Instead of flying past the bat or the under the eyes of a helpless batter, the fastest pitch thrown by a starter in the last five seasons was rocketed back up the middle and into center field for a single. The reason is actually quite clear; the inexperienced rookie has yet to learn one of the cardinal rules of pitching in the big leagues: anyone can hit a 100 MPH fastball used improperly. The 102 MPH pitch to Yan Gomes didn’t come off of a couple sliders or changeups, but after 4 consecutive 97+ MPH fastballs in a similar location. The quality of the pitch becomes irrelevant when its thrown four times in a row.
Yordano’s success as a starter, thereofore, will hinge on the development of his secondary pitches and on him learning how to pitch. His curveball is a legitimate offspead pitch that flashes plus, but his changeup is still coming along, although it could very well become an above average major league offering when all is said and done. If Ventura is to make strides in these categories, it will have to come at the major league level, as he can outmatch minor league hitters on the merits of his fastball alone.
The other obstacle for Ventura is his size. Standing just 5’11, 180 pounds, the flamethrower does not back up his fastball with a strong pitcher’s frame, leaving questions about his durability as a starter. Fellow slight righthander, the 5’11, 170 lb Tim Lincecum has seen his fastball velocity drop dramatically over the course of his career. His seasonal ERAs have gone in the opposite direction.
Three years ago, Peter Gammons did a piece for MLB.com on how height doesn’t matter and why undersized pitchers can thrive in the big leagues. The then active (either in the majors or minors) short pitchers he used as specific examples were Tim Collins, Craig Kimbrel, Billy Wagner, Manny Banuelos, Tim Lincecum, Johnny Cueto, Daisuke Matzuzaka, Mike Leake, Shaun Marcum, Roy Oswalt. Leake and Oswalt have had relatively healthy careers, but Cueto missed almost the entirety of last season with a shoulder injury and Matzuzaka has lost well over a season’s worth of starts with elbow, forearm, shoulder, neck, and leg injuris. Elbow issues and the resultant Tommy John surgery cost Banuelos the majority of 2012 and 2013, and Marcum spent 2009 on the sidelines thanks to Tommy John and underwent shoulder surgery last July. I already touched upon Lincecum, and the rest of the pitchers haven’t gotten hurt largely because they are relievers.
If size and durability concerns send him to the bullpen, Ventura’s value as a closer would be obvious. Although his curveball isn’t as sharp as the sliders possessed by Craig Kimbrel or Aroldis Chapman the 100 MPH/power breaking ball combo, makes them favorable points of comparison. A seventh/eighth/ninth inning bridge of Luis Coleman, Ventura, and Greg Holland could let the royals wrap up games by the end of the sixth inning.
Of course it is also possible that the Royals straddle the bag on this one, and send Ventura to the bullpen for one or two seasons before transitioning him to the rotation. It’s a path that the Cardinals took to tremendous success with Adam Wainwright and hope to do the same with Carlos Martinez and Trevor Rosenthal.
What do you think? Does this fireballer belong at the top of a rotation or the back end of a bullpen?