On Wednesday, the Royals posted this below to commemorate the three-year anniversary of Yordano “Ace” Ventura’s death:
There has been much to celebrate in Kansas City over this past week: the Chiefs in the Super Bowl; Fan Fest taking place this weekend at Bartle Hall; Salvador Perez earning his US Citizenship and preparing to celebrate with Royals faithful at Fan Fest…
However, while the Royals’ tribute to Ventura is honorable and fitting, it does bring back not just some nostalgic feelings, but some bittersweet ones as well. Ventura endeared to me the most as I developed into a Royals fan when I moved to Kansas City in the summer of 2013. He was one of the first Royals prospects I really paid attention to during that summer, as a friend of mine and I would text constantly after every solid start in Omaha, both of us anticipating when he would finally debut at Kauffman Stadium.
It still bothers me that I chose to go to graduate school class over Ventura’s debut at the K. Especially when I find videos chronicling the historic moment on YouTube:
Ventura died way too young in a car crash at the age of 25, and even to this day, I don’t think the scars have fully healed here in Kansas City. I know as a Royals fan, it’s been tough to live in a Royals reality without “Ace” Ventura. After all, going into 2014, Yordano was to Kansas City like Pedro to Boston (or Montreal if you want to go way back). He was not an intimidating presence on the mound, but he threw in the upper 90’s with his fastball, and was starting to develop a changeup that was making him more dangerous as a pitcher. And if that was not enough, Ventura, in the words of Ned Yost, was a “red ass” to the fullest extent, usually the catalyst to many bench-clearing brawls, as evidenced below:
Yes, Ventura has a fights compilation on YouTube. After only three full years in the league.
“Ace” Ventura surely was something else both as a pitcher as well as a competitor (and most importantly, as a Royal).
It’s safe to say that the Royals’ starting rotation has struggled in the shadow of Ventura’s unexpected passing. During the Royals run of competitiveness from 2013-2016 (years where Yordano pitched), the Royals ranked 23rd in starting pitching WAR and 16th in starting pitching ERA, according to Fangraphs. From 2017-2019, however, the Royals regressed to 24th in starting pitching WAR as well as 26th in starting pitching ERA. To say the Royals lacked good starting pitching the past few years is putting it lightly: they have been devoid of not only consistency in the rotation, but they have also missed a true ace to carry them at the top.
Despite a big contract extension in 2016, Danny Duffy has struggled to fill that role, as he has dealt with injury and inconsistency. In addition, while Brad Keller will probably be the Opening Day starter for a second-straight year, it is likely that 2020 will be his last Opening Day start for the Royals with the crop of young arms waiting in the wings. While it’s hard to think that the Royals could have avoided 100-plus loss seasons the past two years with a front line starter, it certainly would have made the past two years more palatable.
Could Ventura have been that “Ace” who carried the Royals during those “lean” years in 2018 and 2019?
Well, the answer is a bit more complicated than what Royals fans may think…
First off, 2016 was not exactly kind to Ventura as a pitcher. After putting up a solid campaign during the Royals World Series run in 2015 with a 13-8 record, 4.08 ERA, 3.57 FIP and 2.7 WAR, Ventura regressed in his final year with the Royals. His record fell to 11-12, and his ERA rose to 4.45, as did his FIP to 4.59. Furthermore, his 1.6 WAR was over one less from a season ago, not exactly encouraging for a guy without the traditional “big pitcher” frame and coming off a five-year extension after the 2015 season.
With his struggles, many Royals fans were thinking that Ventura would be destined to the pen in 2020. After all, his K rate fell from 8.60 in 2015 to 6.97 in 2016. Add that with a regression in K/BB rate (2.69 to 1.85) and an increase in contact rate (76.8 to 79 percent), and it made sense that fans were thinking that Ventura’s stamina and frame would be an issue for the future, especially by 2020.
However, despite the struggles, all the signs were still there that Ventura would have continued to be the “ace” of this club by Opening Day this season if he was still alive.
First off, for those who felt that Ventura’s frame would give him arm struggles in a prolonged role as a starter, it was evident that he was growing into his body by 2016. And in that growth, he would have also gained some durability, which he continued to show in 2016, as his inning total jumped up by 20-plus innings in 2016 from 2015.
Take a look at his highlights from 2015 and observe his frame:
Now, let’s check out his highlights from 2016:
Royals fans can see that he put on some weight from the 2015 World Series championship year. Now, some may think that’s a bad thing, that he gained excess fat, and thus, that weight gain may have explained his lackluster in 2016. While that may have been true to an extent, it is also likely that Ventura was growing into his body, and with a a full year of a bigger frame, he would have been used to it more and thrived in 2017 and beyond. In the 2015 highlights, he still looked like a “skinny rookie.” In the 2016 highlights, he looked more like a durable pitcher worthy of taking the mantle as the Royals’ No. 1 starter for years to come.
In addition to Ventura growing into his frame, his change in pitch repertoire also was a sign that he could have still been in the Royals rotation by 2020 (barring injury of course). From 2013-2015, Ventura still relied on a cutter, which produced mixed results, if judging Fangraphs pitch value metrics. However, in 2016, he cut out the cutter (nice pun), and relied more on the changeup, which improved from a minus-3.9 pitch in 2015 to a minus-0.5 pitch in 2016. With his curveball still effective (his curve rated best according to pitch value at 11.5) and fastball sitting in the high 90’s (he had an average fastball velocity of 96.7 MPH in 2016), it possible that as he continued to improve his changeup, his other metrics would have improved as well, had he pitched in 2017 and beyond.
In one of the last articles about him before his untimely passing, Craig Edwards of Fangraphs said this about Ventura, whom he felt that the Royals needed to keep for the future of the franchise:
“There’s very little reason for the Royals to sell low on Ventura at this point. He could completely fail and their investment would be minimal. The outlook is questionable beyond this season for Kansas City given their impending free agents, but if they hope to contend after 2017, waiting for Yordano Ventura to fulfill his promise is one of the few chances the Royals have.”Craig Edwards, “The Royals Shouldn’t Sell Low on Ventura”
It’s amazing how some Royals fans were probably clamoring for Dayton Moore and the Royals to trade Ventura around Winter time of 2016 and 2017. They probably felt that he would never live up to his potential as a former Top-50 Baseball America prospect, and the Royals would have been better off finding someone else to fill his spot, perhaps someone without the “conflict with opposing teams” baggage.
However, I was against the notion then, and in retrospect, I am even more insulted by the idea as a Royals fan. Ventura not only meant a lot to the club when he was alive and pitching, but he would have meant even more if he was still alive today. Maybe he would not have been Pedro Martinez (like some Royals fans hoped he would be), but he would have been close: an Ervin Santana with a little more attitude. And that model would have been enough to not only justify an extension in 2020, but also would have made this Royals rotation stronger, and thus, this club better overall.
Everything happens for a reason. Yordano is in a better place now and his soul certainly deserves its rest. However, as a fan I miss Yordano Ventura. He brought an edge to the Royals. He made them rough around the edge, and he had the repertoire and stuff to be a no. 1 or no. 2 guy in the Royals rotation beyond not just 2016, but maybe even 2020.
I wish Ventura was taking the hill on Opening Day in 2020.
No offense to Keller.
But as said before…”Ace” Ventura was just something else.