Royals pitching prospect Yordano Ventura is quickly developing in to one of the elite young pitchers in the minor leagues. Very quickly. Three years ago, Ventura was a short, skinny non-prospect, tossing 88 MPH fastballs with modest effectiveness. Fast-forward to June 2012, and the right-hander’s name is one of the hottest in the prospect world. Boasting a heater that now touches 100 MPH and a razor-sharp curveball, Ventura is dominating the low-minors for the second straight season. After he was snubbed last summer, the righty was named to both the Carolina League All-Star Game and the prestigious Futures Game.
Before his breakout performance last Spring, Yordano Ventura drew only luke-warm attention as a prospect. At just seventeen years old, he signed with the Royals out of the Dominican Republic for a bargain-basement $28K in October 2008. He opened his career in the Dominican Summer League, and while he posted decent numbers there, his scrawny 5’9″frame, 88 MPH fastball and one-pitch repertoire didn’t exactly scream big league future.
Ventura returned to the DSL Royals to open 2010. This time around though, he was a new pitcher. Teenage pitchers filling out and building arm strength is obviously nothing out of the ordinary, but Ventura’s progress wasn’t a step, it was a terrific leap forward. Working with the Royals player development team in the offseason, he managed to add quality muscle to his build while also enhancing his balance and sharpening his pitching fundamentals. After growing two inches in the offseason, he showed up to camp stronger and taller, adding some desperately-needed length to his frame. With more strength behind the ball and smoother mechanics, Ventura’s arm-speed improved extraordinarily. His fastball jumped in to the 92-94 MPH range, and sat in the mid 90′s consistently. And, as the season went on and his arm loosened-up, Yordano’s velocity increased even further. He earned a promotion to the Arizona League just before his nineteenth birthday, and he finished his sophomore campaign on a hot-streak, with a 2.07 ERA and 29 strikeouts through the final 26 innings of his season.
Impressed with his remarkable growth, the Royals acted aggressively and sent Ventura to the hitter-friendly Midwest League to begin 2011. After stumbling out of the gate and allowing twelve earned runs through his first 15 innings pitched, Ventura kicked his motor in to high gear. Harnessing his power arm, the right-hander’s fastball consistently lit up 97′s and 98′s on radar guns, and even touched 100 MPH on multiple occasions. More importantly, he convinced scouts that he was more than just a thrower, showing improved control and unveiling two promising offspeed pitches by the end of the summer. Righting himself after his shakey start, Ventura posted a 3.65 ERA and racked up 65 strikeouts through his final 68 innings pitched. He was still a project of course, but now he offered some serious upside.
Unbelievable for a pitcher who already has grown so much during his young professional career, Ventura has taken his game to an even higher level this season while pitching for the Carolina League’s Wilmington Blue Rocks. Not only have Ventura’s command and control continued to improve, but his curveball now rates at least average and flashes wipe-out potential. He’s also becoming more efficient, and showing a newfound feel for his repertoire. Through 73 2/3 IP this season, Ventura leads the Carolina League with 95 strikeouts and ranks among the top-five starting pitchers in H/9 (7.5) and in ERA (2.72). He even outdueled Orioles phenom Dylan Bundy on June 2nd, when his Blue Rocks took on the Frederick Keys. Ventura earned the win after striking out six batters and allowing just three hits through five-shout innings. He also managed to hand Bundy the first loss of his professional career.
Ventura’s fastball makes him a top prospect and is one of the best in the minor leagues. Blessed with lightswitch-fast armspeed, Ventura can crank his heater up to 100 MPH when he’s loose. He manages to generate flamethrower velocity with relative ease out of his bantam frame. Utilizing a simple rock’n'fire delivery, he takes a high-leg kick while twisting his torso and pulling his left knee across his belt buckle. He uses a cocking mechanism when loading, dipping his hand in to the bucket, tilting his front shoulder up and pointing his first uniform number at left-handed batters. He then uncoils his torso, and whips his arm through the zone out of a 3/4 slot. The ball jumps out of his hand, with hissing buzz-saw spin. Despite his abbreviated stride, his closed delivery hides the ball. Once he unwinds, the snapping corkscrew action of his upper body busts his fastball on top of batters with a hop.
Ventura throws both four-seam and two-seam fastballs. His four-seamer is his go-to. Energized with pure power, the pitch sits firmly in the mid 90′s, and rarely dips below 93 MPH– even by the end of a pitch count. Now that he’s cleaned-up his arm action and mechanics, his velocity is much more consistent in general. He can reach back for 98+ MPH heat when he absolutely needs to fit the ball through the hitting zone. His fastball also shows nice late movement. Paired with his 3/4 release, his premium arm-speed adds nasty running action. The thicker Carolina League air makes his riding heater spring to his arm-side with movement that brings a young Jesus Colome to mind. At the top of the zone, his four-seamer shows visible rise, making it extremely difficult for opposing batters to get on top of. He’ll cut it across the plate to jam lefties, and does a nice job of fighting-through contact in the strikezone.
When Yordano needs to put a little bit more on the ball, he’ll switch over to his heavy two-seamer. He pronates his wrist with the turn of a doorknob as the pitch leaves his fingertips–a Guillermo Mota-type release– creating slick tailing action. When he’s a his best, the pitch skips across the plate, with vicious riding action in on the knuckles of right-handed hitters. If he can stay on top of it more, his two-seamer could morph into a hard sinker, boring through the bottom of the strikezone. Now that he’s developed a second fastball, once he improves his command and irons-out a few mechanical issues, Ventura’s heater could rate a true 80 on the 20-80 scale.
Before the season, Ventura’s off-speed arsenal was nascent and only a peripheral part of his game-repertoire– which essentially consisted of a fastball. 2012 has been a whole different story. When he’s comfortable and maintaining his arm-slot, his curveball is now one of the best in the low-minors. He’s increased the pitch’s velocity lately, from the mid 70′s to the low 80′s, and has tightened up its break. He’s also done a better job of staying on top of it, scrapping its flatter, sloppier movement in favor of deep, late break. His curveball drops off the table and dives in the dirt, often flashing true wipeout potential. He’s able to get the pitch over the plate for called strikes, but uses it most effectively as a swing-and miss pitch against right-handers. He spins it with maximum effort, firing as high as 83-84 MPH with fastball arm-speed. The extra oomph not only means sharper movement, but the effort fools opposing batters into gearing up for heat, adding further deception.
Though inconsistent, Ventura’s mid 80′s changeup is developing in to a solid pitch as well. He still doesn’t always trust his arm-speed and release, but he generally shows good feel for it. He uses a circle grip and rolls over the ball with extra pronation, pulling the lamp shade down, and lets his change run away from left-handed hitters. His loose wrists and strong fingers add extra velocity separation, even when he maintains fastball arm-speed, and the pitch naturally dies as it approaches home plate. He gets unbelievable velocity separation from his fastball, often throwing his changeup as low as the 80-82 MPH range. Unfortunately, the extra movement and decreased velocity often works against him as he’ll have difficulty keeping the pitch alive long enough to reach strikezone. Once he disguises the pitch better and throws it harder, though, his change should sit comfortably in the 87-89 MPH range, a more optimal speed for his arm strength. With that much velocity taken off of his fastball, and filthy split-finger sink, Ventura’s change-up could grow in to another plus pitch, particularly if he hones his release and develops more confidence in it.
Previously, Yordano’s delivery was an issue. Scouts worried about his inconsistent landing and top-heavy mechanics. He remains unpolished fundamentally, but he shows more touch and finesse than most power pitches in his age group. He’s still more of a thrower than a pitcher, but he’s improving by leaps and bounds every month. Right now, Ventura is a kick-and-wing-it guy. He needs to lengthen his stride a little bit, loosen up his hips, and put more of his body behind the ball. There’s a lot of positives here though. He’s cleaned up his arm action– showing sound movements even out of the stretch. He does a great job of staying closed, leading with his front hip before leading his stride with his heel. He’s also adept at staying compact, and behind the ball. He’s a solid athlete, with fluid actions, and nice extension. His arm-slot fluctuates a bit, but it’s no longer a red flag now that he’s settled in to more of a straight three-quarters. He repeats his delivery fairly well and his control is solid for his age and experience level. He throws strikes with his fastball, and displays a good feel for the zone. Once he learns to push-off the rubber and use his legs to drive the ball towards home plate, he’ll have even more power behind his arm and his fastball could gain another tick of velocity.
Ventura’s delivery is arm-heavy, true, but he avoids some of the issues that Brian Bruney-type throwers run in to. He keeps his head fairly quiet during his release, and though there’s some recoil in his follow-through, there’s no violent snapping movement. He walks off toward the first base line, but isn’t stumbling by any means. In terms of arm action and timing, Ventura is doing a lot of things right. There’s no visible hyper-abduction in his elbow, his arm is in the “L” position right when his lead foot is fully planted, and though he doesn’t get great hip/shoulder separation, he leads with his front-side heel and stays back well. He shows the ball to the third baseman, and while loading, he keeps his elbows just below his shoulders. His tempo could use some smoothing, but there’s really no red flags in his timing overall. His few mechanical issues are balance/strength-related, and once he strengthens his lower-half, and firms-up his base, he should be a-okay.
Ventura’s command is still pretty raw. He’s able to keep his walk rate manageable, and he can pound the zone with his fastball, but he’s often too hittable for a flamethrower pitching in A-ball. He’s added considerable muscle and power during the past few years, but his balance is still iffy. He has trouble maintaining his angle to homeplate, and in an attempt to avoid flying open, he often plants his lead foot toward the third-base line and throws across his body. From pitch to pitch, he’ll land in three different lines. He’s fluid, but still overthrows his pitches when he’s laboring, rushing his delivery and losing his body control. His still-developing mechanics combined with the extra movement and velocity causes his command to suffer. No doubt, he knows how to miss bats, but he’ll have to polish his repertoire before he can bring it against more advanced competition.
Though they show plenty of potential, Ventura’s pair of off-speed pitches need some work. He can throw both his change and curve for strikes, but he doesn’t show the ability to throw quality strikes just yet. His arm-heavy delivery and short, closed stride make his off-speed pitches susceptible to hanging up in the strikezone. Especially when he’s pitching out of the stretch, he’ll occasionally drop his elbow when throwing his change and curveball, causing them to flatten out and sail. His curveball is prone to rolling out of his fingers and tumbling toward the right-handed batter’s box with dead spin when he doesn’t stay on top of it. He’s hit more than a few batters this way. He also doesn’t have enough confidence in his change-up to really make use of it come game time. He’ll mix it in occasionally, but rarely uses it in a situation with any leverage.
Ventura’s diminutive build draws plenty of doubters. He doesn’t need a lot of effort to generate plus-plus velocity, but his mechanics put extra stress on his arm to do the majority of the work. He likes to light up radar guns as much as any power-arm, making him too prone to over-throwing. He’s no longer a fastball-only guy, and snapping off a hard breaking ball won’t do his elbow any favors. He shows the stamina necessary for a spot in a big league rotation, maintaining his heat deep in to his starts, but in the long-term, he’s probably a bullpen guy. There’s nothing wrong with that– the Royals appear to have Joakim Soria’s heir right at their fingertips.
Ventura has consistently performed at an elite level since bringing his career state side. His FIP has outperformed his ERA throughout his career, largely due to his ability to strike out batters (10.29 K/9 since 2010). He doesn’t rely on his defense heavily, and though his career BABIP is slightly above average, sitting at .309, that’s understandable due to the lower rate of fly-ball outs in the minor leagues. He’s allowed just 7.2 hits per nine innings this season, and his 3.52 K/BB ratio indicates his the power of his repertoire as well as his improved command efficiency.
Ventura has consistently outperformed his peers and has sat in the top-tier of each league he’s played in. His numbers improved following his promotion from the Sally to the more advanced Carolina League. While the Carolina League isn’t tough on flyball pitchers by any means, Ventura hasn’t needed to rely heavily on the humid air or the defense behind him. In a small league laden with top arms– boasting name-brands like Dylan Bundy, Matt Barnes, Cody Buckel, J.R. Graham and Jason Adam at present– it’s particularly impressive that Ventura’s 3.1 FIP this season is more than 15% below the league-average mark.
There aren’t many Yordano Ventura’s out there. Though he’s just twenty-one years old, Ventura is developing at a whirlwind pace. He boasts the strongest arm in the Royals’ system and his fastball is downright brilliant. Refining his delivery and developing his knock-out breaking ball have allowed him to make the jump from intriguing arm to a possible future front-end starter. His small size and lack of track record keep scouts skeptical, but if Ventura can continue to grow and improve his game, the sky is the limit.
For now, Kansas City will pace Ventura’s timetable. The club wants to take a wait-and-see approach with him in the rotation, and he’ll probably finish out the season in the Carolina League. If he continues to mow down batters at his current rate, he has an outside shot at a promotion to Northwest Arkansas.
If Yordano reaches his ceiling, he’ll take over the number-one or two spot in a homegrown rotation as a Johnny Cueto-type gunslinger. There’s a strong possibility that the Royals will decide to move him in to the bullpen. In that case, Ventura’s arsenal should play-up a tick and his command could benefit as well, making him a truly elite reliever or first-tier closer in the mold of a young Octavio Dotel. Even if his command doesn’t continue to move forward and added strength doesn’t sure-up his mechanics, he should still be an electrifying Jesus Colome-type.