I noticed a blog the other day where the author wondered if Yordano Ventura should start Opening Day for the Royals. I found it interesting. Etiquette says I should post the link to the blog. So I will. (LINK) My conscience says to tell you to click at your own risk.

I’m breaking all sorts of personal blog rules here. But I thought the post deserved a thoughtful response.

A couple years ago I was standing behind a backstop on one of the Royals spring training fields in Surprise, Ariz. A skinny kid was on the mound and he cut loose with a fastball. After one pitch I immediately turned to the person next to me and asked: “Who is that guy?”

It was my first look at Yordano Ventura.

We’ve almost all had that very same reaction. Ventura is a slight, skinny kid from the Dominican Republic. He looks like he’s skipping his high school algebra class to go to a baseball game. Except he’s pitching. And throwing heat. And regularly getting major league hitters out. You wouldn’t believe it just from looking at him, but after just one pitch, you know. Ventura has a special, special arm.

It’s easy heat in that it doesn’t look like he’s giving max effort to attain max velocity. So smooth. So unhittable when he’s on his game.

When you’re sitting in the upper deck you might think a big-league fastball doesn’t look all that fast, but if you ever get to stand close to home plate when a big-league pitcher throws a big-league fastball, you’ll realize they’re throwing a lot harder than you think — and Yordano Ventura throws harder than almost anybody else.

Translation: I’ve been on the dirt. You haven’t. Therefore, I come to you with knowledge. Knowledge that can only be found on the dirt. Mixed with grit and shells of sunflower seeds. You just can’t understand these ballplayers unless you are with them. On the dirt. Because the dirt is where they play.

So here’s the question: if the Royals get to opening day and their starting rotation is Jason Vargas, Jeremy Guthrie, Edinson Volquez, Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura, and Ventura has the best stuff on the staff, should Ventura be the Royals’ opening day starter?

Good question.

It depends.

That’s not an answer.

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What follows from the writer is a reminder that Ventura is young and has made a limited number of big league starts. Personally, that’s part of what makes him so exciting. So much potential. And so much heat. Youth!

Here’s why that matters: During the 2014 AL Wild Card Game…

Oh, god.

Ventura threw Moss two fastballs and both missed the zone. With the count 2-0, Ventura threw a third fastball — a fastball in a fastball count — and Moss didn’t miss it. Ventura’s 98 mph fastball was lined over the center-field wall for a three-run homer and the Athletics had the lead.

How about this? Who called for the third consecutive fastballs to Moss?

Makes you think. Which is sometimes the point.

Let’s dive a little deeper…

Ventura throws a fastball about 44 percent of the time to left-handed batters. He offers that pitch 45 percent of the time when he’s behind in the count. Also, when he’s behind, Ventura will throw his two-seamer 29 percent of the time and his change-up 15 percent of the time. Yes, it was a fastball count, but the sinker and the change are certainly options. Interestingly enough, in all counts he throws his sinker 18 percent of the time to left-handed batters. He will throw it 29 percent of the time when he falls behind in the count to lefties. That deviation (18 percent in all counts versus 29 percent when he’s behind) suggests to me that Ventura is extremely confident about his command of that pitch. If he’s confident of his command, it’s a good strategy to throw that pitch. It comes in a tick slower than his four-seamer, and features a nice little downward sink. When it’s put in play, left-handed batters hit a ground ball 49 percent of the time. Given the situation – runners on first and second – why wouldn’t Ventura and Perez gone for a ground ball to get the double play? Why throw three consecutive fastballs to a hitter who has already clubbed a monster home run? Sure, it’s a fastball count, but again given the situation, you can’t give him a 98 mph pipe shot. Because home runs.

The counterpoint to this is his two-seamer isn’t a great pitch to throw to left-handed batters. Lefties hit .356 and slugged .452 against that pitch. They swing and miss at the pitch just five percent of the time.

Is there a correct answer? A certain pitch we can say he definitely should have thrown? No. But that’s baseball. I get what happened, though. With two runners already on base, Ventura felt he couldn’t take any chances, so he went fastball and left that third consecutive heater over the heart of the plate in Moss’s happy zone.

Ventura_Moss

Let’s return to the blog post.

Ventura had faced three batters, given up two hits, allowed two earned runs and finished his one-third of an inning with a postseason ERA of 54.00.

Let’s get crazy. One-third of an inning. Three batters. That is just about the smallest sample size you can have. You are forming an opinion off of three batters. You can be anti-stats, but to pass judgement on someone’s guts or confidence based on three batters faced… That just flies in the face of common sense.

The writer fails to bring up two very important points which may have played a role in the outcome of the cited small sample. First, Ventura entered the game having made a start just two days prior. In that start he threw 74 pitches and labored through four innings. That outing followed his penultimate start of the regular season in Cleveland where he threw a season-high 117 pitches. Given an elevated, late season pitch count and the short rest, do you think there was a chance Ventura was a little fatigued? Could that have had anything to do with his struggles in the Wild Card game?

Second, that was just the second time in 2014 that Ventura pitched in relief. And although he had success in his previous relief outing, I personally dislike bringing in a starting pitcher in the middle of an innings, especially with runners on base. Starters are creatures of habit. They have their routines to get ready. Now if you want to bring a starter in in the fourth inning, their may have to abbreviate or rush their routine, but they at least have the luxury of starting a clean inning. Ventura had no such luxury. This wasn’t about cracking under pressure. This was about a pitcher in an unfamiliar spot in a high-leverage situation.

Pedro Martinez, who has spent some time in the dirt, was highly critical of Yost bringing Ventura in to the game in the middle of an inning.

Ugly goat. Perfect. That’s why Pedro is in the Hall of Fame.

CJ Nitkowski also Tweeted from the dirt with some criticism for the Royals manager.

Writers chimed in immediately. Yost’s decision was called questionable and his skill as a manager was classified as terrible. That was a spot for Kelvin Herrera. That’s not hindsight. It was a key situation in a winner-take-all game and with the Royals amazing bullpen, it was appropriate for Herrera to take the mound. Everyone but Yost knew it and I suspect, based on his managerial moves later in October, he learned something from his error in judgement.

Nevermind all that logic above. According to this blog, Ventura pissed himself and nearly threw away the Royals October before it even started.

So what’s all that have to do with being the opening day starter?

Nothing. Duh.
At the beginning of the season, No. 1 starters face No. 1 starters. Each team throws their best guy out there on opening day and for a while — until days off or rainouts throw matchups out of sync — an opening day starter can assume he’ll face the best pitcher the opposition has to offer. 
And that means you can pitch great and still lose.
I’m going to let you in on a little secret. You can pitch great anytime against any other starting pitcher in the league and still lose. I’ve seen it. Truth.
If a pitcher is mentally strong that might not matter; he knows what he can control and how well the other guy pitches isn’t on the list. But if a guy isn’t confident it can get in his head; he feels like he’s pitched very well and is still losing.

How about this… Three days later, Ventura started Game Two of the ALDS and dominated. He threw seven innings, struck out five and walked just one. He left with the score tied at 1. This means two things: One, he didn’t get the pitcher win that surely is important to this blogger. Two, he was pitching in some high leverage situations as the game progressed. In fact, Ventura’s average Leverage Index for that start was 1.31 which was his highest in a start in October.
Oh, let’s not forget Game Six of the World Series. Do or die. Backs against the wall. And Ventura held the Giants in check for seven innings. His command wasn’t sharp (five walks against four strikeouts), but he survived, kept the Giants off the scoreboard and rode the Royals bats to the decisive Seventh Game. That took some cojones.
Should Yordano Ventura be the opening day starter?

I’m pretty sure I’m unqualified to answer that question.

OK.

I’ll go ahead and take a stab. Sure, Ventura should start the opener. Why not? Ventura was the second-best starter on the team last year to James Shields. He was the best starter in October. With Shields gone, Ventura is the best starting pitcher on the team, so I think he should be the Opening Day starter. Will he get the assignment? That’s an entirely separate question. Yost loves him some veterans. I could see him handing the ball to Jason Vargas. Or it could be Edinson Volquez because he’s the new, big free agent signing. Or maybe Shields makes some sort of triumphant return to Kansas City to complete some unfinished business.

Either way, with the rotation seemingly set, who starts the Opener is going to an interesting subplot of the spring. Glad I could help clear up a few things.