Starting pitchers under six feet are like quarterbacks of the same size. Unless they're Drew Brees, they're dismissed out of hand. Better to make them the next Billy Wagner then try to run them out there for 100-plus pitchers per night. But just like Brees is the exception to that rule, so, too, might be Yordano Ventura.
The 5-foot-11 Ventura made his first start of the 2014 season on Tuesday, and it was clear to see why the Royals have him in their rotation. He mixed a high-90s fastball with a mid-80s curveball and high-80s changeup that all devilishly combined for a repertoire that the Rays simply could not touch. Ventura ended up pitching six scoreless innings, allowing just two hits -- one of which was by the first batter of the game -- while striking out six and walking none. The Rays put exactly one man in scoring position against him. Needless to say, it was a wildly impressive performance from a 22-year-old making the fourth start of his career.
If the Rays had any illusions that the Ventura hype was more style than substance, those beliefs were dispelled after the first inning. Ventura allowed a leadoff single to David DeJesus, but then made hilariously easy work of Wil Myers and Ben Zobrist. It's those two at-bats that I want to talk about, and probably will be talking about until the next time Ventura takes the mound.
Ventura's first pitch to Myers was a 97 mph fastball down and out of the zone. Myers took it comfortably. It was the last time the 2013 Rookie of the Year looked comfortable in his first at-bat against the potential 2014 Rookie of the Year. Ventura's next pitch -- and we'll soon see that this is a pattern -- was a nasty 86 mph changeup. Myers hacked at it like it was heat, and he was way out in front. Just like that Ventura was even in the count.
By the way, 22-year-old starters making their fourth start in the majors aren't supposed to be able to back up a 97 mph fastball with an 86 mph changeup in the perfect spot in the zone. Just so we're all clear.
At 1-1, Ventura doubled up on changeups. This one froze Myers and painted the outside corner for strike two. At this point, Ventura was in complete control of the at-bat and he knew it. He broke out his first curveball against Myers, which missed down and away. In the 2-2 count, Ventura went back to his fastball and Myers fouled it straight back. In most cases, this wouldn't be much worth noting. A fastball in a fastball count and fastball situation, as in after a 1-2 breaking pitch, is par for the course. However, this fastball from Ventura registered 100 mph. This is not a closer but a starter who still would be hitting 96 with his fastball 90 pitches later. I will carry on, against my will.
The count remains 2-2. The pitch sequence has been fastball-changeup-changeup-curveball-fastball. That last heater, just in case you forgot, was 100 mph. No doubt Myers was geared up for it again. And that's why Salvador Perez called for, and Ventura executed perfectly, a changeup. It came in at 89 mph, was just about knee high, and had Myers way out in front. Ventura simply toyed with Myers before sending him back to the bench with his bat in his hands. If it's any solace for the Rays right fielder, he wouldn't be the last batter to look foolish against Ventura.
In fact, the very next batter was Ventura's second fool of the night. Ventura started Ben Zobrist with a 99 mph fastball comfortably on the inner third of the plate for strike one. When you have Ventura's stuff, getting strike one is half the battle. At this point, the entire repertoire is at his disposal. His next offering, another 99 mph fastball, missed high and wide. Ventura backed that up with another fastball, and again he missed with it high.
At this point, Ventura was facing a 2-1 count against a dangerous, veteran hitter. Just as he did when he got down 1-0 to Myers, he snapped off a knee-buckling changeup that froze Zobrist to even the count at 2-2. Ventura went back to the fastball, but, like his first two fastballs to Zobrist, his front side flew open, causing him to miss high and wide.
With the count full, Zobrist had thus far seen fastball-fastball-fastball-changeup-fastball. Ventura had shown a penchant for throwing a changeup when down in the count, having done that against both Myers and Zobrist. However, that would not be the case in this instance. Ventura reared back and fired another 99 mph fastball essentially right down the middle. Despite the location, Zobrist was late and went down swinging.
Ventura would confound the Rays for another five innings on Tuesday, but he showed everything he needed to in that first inning. He relied on a fastball-changeup combo, mixing in the occasional spiked curveball, to absolutely dominate hitters. Ventura is just scratching the surface of what he can be this year. We're in the middle of another golden age for pitchers, evidenced by the performance of youngsters like Jose Fernandez and Matt Harvey last season. Ventura looks ready to carry that mantle forward in 2014.