On Thursday afternoon, it was all about one man, his right arm, and a performance of the most dominant quality.
Yordano Ventura sliced through the Orioles lineup, throwing six innings with 11 strikeouts. Sure, there were some blips on command – he issued four walks – but he minimized the damage by being pretty much unhittable when he was in the zone.
The strikeouts were a career-high, topping his previous best of 10 set in May of 2014. His Game Score of 75 was tied for his best mark of the year, set in May against Cincinnati. It was truly a dominant start.
It wasn’t all easy. Because is wouldn’t be a Ventura 2015 start without a few speed bumps along the way. He wobbled in the first inning. Yes, he struck out the side, but he also walked two batters and needed 27 pitches to negotiate the inning. From that frame, it was clear that it would be difficult for the Orioles to put the bat to the ball and make solid contact against Ventura. It was also clear that Ventura’s command would be an issue.
Except it really wasn’t. Not too much of an issue, anyway.
There were spots of trouble. In the third, when a walk, a single, and a wild pitch placed two runners in scoring position. Strikeout. In the sixth, a single and a walk put runners on first and second. Groundout.
Two things were working for Ventura. First, his fastball was pure heat. His four-seamer, which has been averaging 96 mph for the season, averaged a whopping 99.6 mph. He cut loose with the pitch 36 times, according to Brooks Baseball, and hit a high speed of 101.5 mph. Incredible.
The second thing that was working for him was his curve. By my count, nine of his 11 strikeouts came on the breaking ball. The pitch had incredible bite. As such, Ventura had batters guessing (and guessing wrong) all afternoon.
From Brooks Baseball, here is Ventura’s velocity chart from his start.
So damn impressive. About a 14-16 mph separation between his fastball and his curve. With a few change-ups thrown in the mix for good measure.
Ventura threw his curve 32 times and generated nine swings and misses. He also got quite a few takes in the strike zone for a called third strike. It was just a great pitch for him all afternoon.
Ventura blamed his rocky first inning on not being properly prepared. The game was scheduled for a 1 PM start, but a rain delay meant it didn’t get underway until closer to 2:30. All starters go through an individual routine to get ready for their start, and delays like that can knock them for a loop. Now, having said that, starters need to be adaptable. Not every appearance is going to come with perfect conditions. Yet let’s give Ventura the benefit of the doubt here and mark it up to yet another learning experience.
Speaking of learning experiences, the narrative here is much of Ventura’s turnaround this month is thanks to the tutelage of one Johnny Cueto. I’m sure there’s something there. At the same time, I’m sure that his impact will be oversold. Since Cueto put on the Royal blue (which coincides with Ventura’s one day demotion to the minors) Ventura has made seven starts and posted a 3.07 ERA with 42 strikeouts in 44 innings.
Is it Cueto? Is it being scared straight? Hell if I know. I’m not sure I really care, either. What I do know is that Ventura has recovered from a rocky first half of the season and is putting up his most dominant stretch as a starter since he reached the big leagues. It seems like every post I write these days references the Royals playoff rotation. With the Royals holding such a large lead for the division (and home field advantage) it’s probably one of the more important questions remaining. I mentioned in my last post, that three weeks ago, I had Danny Duffy as a “soft number three” starter for October. Meaning, he was currently the Royals third best option, but I didn’t think the club was thrilled with that possibility. Now, after Thursday, let’s move Ventura to that number three slot.
While Ventura is answering questions, closer Greg Holland is raising a few. In his first appearance since missing time with a “cranky” arm, Holland struggled through his inning. To my untrained eye, it looked like his slider was creeping up in the zone, allowing the Oriole hitters to barrel that pitch. And “barrel” may not be the proper adjective. They certainly made good contact, but it wasn’t like they were crushing Holland. No, this was a very Dirty South outing these days. A couple of great pitches, sandwiched around a handful of baserunners.
It was pretty clear that Holland wasn’t in top form when he first took the mound. His velocity was down between 90 and 92 mph. That’s not where he should be. However, he got stronger as his inning progressed.
It’s one thing to pitch like that with a four run cushion in August when your team is effectively on cruise control. It’s another to pitch like that in the highest of high leverage situations in October. Holland has a few weeks to work through his issues.
It also should be noted that Mike Moustakas continues his August renaissance. He was the offensive star of the day, with three hits in four at bats. In his last 15 games, he’s hitting .357/.446/.750 with 12 extra base hits. It’s too small of a sample size to say he’s fixed, but he’s going to the opposite field again, so this is very much a positive development. Now, if he can sustain it for another month-plus.
The Royals magic number is 23.