Tuesday night's brawl-inciting plunking of Baltimore Orioles star Manny Machado was hardly the first time Kansas City Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura has been in the center of an on-field altercation. In fact, the 25-year-old fireballer has earned a reputation as a Royal pain in the derriere because of such antics, which have overshadowed his natural talent and his eroding performance. If MLB weighs his past history—and it should, given the danger Ventura's high-90s heat poses when he intentionally throws at hitters—he could come away with a longer suspension than another pitcher might get for a similar incident. His future with Kansas City, meanwhile, appears to be in doubt.
Signed out of the Dominican Republic when he was just 17, Ventura made his major league debut on Sept. 17, 2013, and began lighting up radar guns from the outset; via Brooks Baseball, one of his pitches in his first start was clocked at 102.7 mph. He emerged as a rotation staple the following year (his age-23 season), throwing more pitches above 100 mph than any other major league starter (41, according to Baseball Savant) and going 14–10 with a 3.20 ERA, 7.8 strikeouts per nine and 3.2 WAR. That performance helped Kansas City to its first postseason appearance in 29 years, and though he gave up a two-run homer in a brief relief outing in the Royals' epic AL wild-card game against the A's, he made strong starts in the Division Series against the Angels and the World Series against the Giants. None of them was better than his seven shutout innings in Game 6 of the Fall Classic, in which Ventura worked around five walks and allowed just three hits in seven innings to force the series to a seventh game.
That World Series start featured one curious moment that was a portent of things to come for Ventura: After snagging a comebacker off the bat of Pablo Sandoval, he stared down the Giants' third baseman before throwing the ball to first base. "Yordano's got some attitude here in the fourth inning," said Fox play-by-play man Joe Buck over the replay:
Ventura glared at Sandoval again later in the game after walking him but denied that there was anything out of the ordinary about his glowering, telling reporters afterward, "I was pitching normal to him. Pablo didn't say anything to me, and I didn't say anything to Pablo. I was just looking at his shoes, watching him run down to first base. There was nothing behind it." His shoes? Sandoval's response to the cryptic statement was to suggest, "Probably he's jealous that I've got two World Series [rings]." He added a third the next night with San Francisco's victory in a thrilling Game 7.
With the departure of James Shields via free agency that off-season, Kansas City expected big things from Ventura in 2015, but by his second start, his on-field behavior began to overshadow his pitching. Facing Mike Trout in the sixth inning of an April 12 game in which the Royals led 7–1, he threw a 96 mph fastball up and in against the reigning AL MVP; on the next pitch, Ventura nearly had his head taken off by a scorching line drive that went for a single. Ventura stared at Trout, who put his arms out as if in wonderment of what the issue was. Trout eventually came around to score following a bobbled ball in the outfield; when he did, Ventura, who was backing up home plate, exchanged words with the slugger. Benches and bullpens quickly emptied, and Royals catcher Sal Perez hustled the hotheaded young righty away from Trout before things got physical:
The Angels' Matt Joyce, who was on deck at the time, told reporters, "Trout just said, ‘Let’s go,’ and Ventura was there at home, kinda eyeing him down. Trout noticed him eyeing him down and just said, ‘Are you all right?’ And that was it. That was the extent of it. Salvador [Perez] got in [Ventura’s] face and backed him off. It was really weird. I don’t know what he was thinking. Maybe [Ventura] just misunderstood him, or thought he was going to say something else.”
Joyce theorized that the near-miss liner had rattled the righty. “I think he got mad at that. Like you can really control where you’re gonna hit a 98 mile-per-hour fastball. Maybe Trout can. But most of us can’t."
Both benches were warned but things didn't escalate, in part because Ventura was pulled from the game after facing Joyce. Afterward, Ventura refused to offer any insight into the matter, saying through a translator, “It was some back-and-forth. Competing. It’s just going after each other. It happens in baseball."
Six days later, Ventura started against the A's in a series that had already gotten combative after Brett Lawrie knocked Alcides Escobar out of the opening game (and the next two) with a late slide as he attempted to break up a double play. Lawrie later texted an apology, but Escobar both wrote back and refused to accept it, then denied receiving it. With tensions simmering, Ventura took the mound the next day and, after being hammered for five fourth-inning runs, drilled Lawrie in the left arm with a 99-mph fastball—not dissimilar from the pitch with which he hit Machado—and was immediately ejected by home plate umpire Jim Joyce:
That ended Ventura's afternoon, but festivities continued the next day, climaxing with Royals reliever Kelvin Herrera throwing a 100-mph pitch behind Lawrie after both benches were warned. The reliever drew a five-game suspension, and Ventura was fined an undisclosed amount for hitting Lawrie.
Remarkably, Ventura's streak of bad behavior continued into his next start on April 23 against the White Sox. With two outs in the seventh inning of a 2–2 game, Adam Eaton hit a hot smash back at Ventura, who fielded the ball and threw to first but couldn't resist yelling "F--- you!" at Eaton, who pulled up short of first base after being retired and turned toward the pitcher before being restrained by an umpire. Benches and bullpens emptied, and while Ventura was hustled away from the scrum by Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas, several players wound up grappling on the ground:
Five players were ejected, including Ventura and Chicago ace Chris Sale, who afterward reportedly paid an in-game visit to Kansas City's clubhouse in an attempt to settle the score. Ultimately, four Royals and two White Sox were suspended, with Ventura drawing the longest penalty, a seven-gamer. After serving the suspension, he was hit hard in three of his next four turns, and while he avoided further altercations, he struggled with his health and performance, missing nearly four weeks in June and July with what was eventually diagnosed as an irritated ulnar nerve. Rocked for six runs and 10 hits by the Pirates in his first start after the All-Star break, Ventura was optioned to Triple A Omaha but then recalled almost immediately when Jason Vargas went down for the season with a UCL tear.
Ventura's ERA climbed as high as 5.29 after an Aug. 6 drubbing by Pittsburgh, but he reeled off eight quality starts out of his final 11 with 10.7 strikeouts per nine and a 2.38 ERA—a tantalizing glimpse of his true potential. Although the Royals won the World Series, his postseason performance was erratic, as he failed to register a quality start in any of his five turns, two of which lasted a total of 5 1/3 innings. His best outing was in the ALCS-clinching Game 6, when he tossed 5 1/3 innings of one-run ball against the Blue Jays, with the lone run coming on a Jose Bautista home run. Even in that game, Ventura wound up in a staredown with Troy Tulowitzki after striking out the Toronto shortstop.
Ventura had one other incident of note in 2015: a Twitter exchange with Bautista on Aug. 2 in the wake of escalating hostilities between the Jays and Royals, after which Bautista said on Twitter that he had lost respect for Kansas City manager Ned Yost. In a series of quickly-deleted tweets, Ventura said in Spanish that he would get his revenge against Bautista eventually, according to a translation by ESPN Deportes' Arturo Marcano, though he apologized the next day.
Though Ventura had avoided major controversy prior to Tuesday night, he has not pitched well since the end of April. After posting a 2.35 ERA over his first four starts (albeit issuing 14 walks in 23 innings), he's been drilled for a 6.91 ERA and 1.7 homers per nine in 43 innings over his last eight starts, just three of which have been quality. He's issued an AL-high 35 walks in 66 innings, a gaudy 4.8 per nine, and after being charged with six runs in 4 1/3 innings—including Machado's replacement, Paul Janish, scoring on Mark Trumbo's homer off reliever Chien-Ming Wang—his ERA stands at 5.32.
The irony of Ventura's looming suspension is that the Royals—who have lost six straight to undo their previous six-game wining streak, costing them first place in the AL Central—could be better off with someone else taking his turns. It certainly sounds as though his teammates and manager are ready for a vacation from his tired tough-guy act, immaturity and erratic behavior, which is putting them in harm’s way at a time when their flagging offense is already down Moustakas and rightfielder Alex Gordon for lengthy periods of time. Via the Kansas City Star's Sam Mellinger:
[A]fter Ventura was in the middle of a fourth unnecessary show of bluster in 14 months in Baltimore on Tuesday, the Royals displayed metaphorical flashing neon signs for anyone paying attention that they are flat sick of Ventura’s petulance and immaturity.
First, catcher Sal Perez didn’t do much to stop Manny Machado from charging the mound and punching Ventura after the hardest pitch of the night went straight into the ribs of the Orioles star. Then, Ventura sat mostly by himself in the dugout, his teammates tired of telling him how to act like a professional. Afterward, manager Ned Yost admitted his team was irritated with the pitcher.
“Probably,” Yost told reporters. “There’s a little frustration when things like this happen, yeah.”
As to how long Ventura's suspension could be, the guess here is that it will match the 10-game ban that the Padres' Ian Kennedy drew in June 2013 after drilling Yasiel Puig and setting off a major melee, as the league hasn’t issued a longer one for an intentional plunking since at least the turn of the millennium. Still, MLB ought to consider sending its own purpose pitch with an even longer suspension, given Ventura's track record and the fact that his fastest pitch of the night—99.8 mph, according to Brooks Baseball—was the one with which he hit Machado (whose own behavior in charging the mound, while understandable, should not be exonerated). Such a suspension might be reduced to 10 games on an appeal, but at a time when beanball wars have drawn heavy scrutiny, an indication that such behavior won’t be tolerated could open the door to longer suspensions down the road.
Additionally, the Royals could send their own message by optioning Ventura to the minors or trading him. Yahoo Sports' Jeff Passan reported on Wednesday that executives from two teams say that they were recently offered the pitcher in trade talks. Passan also reported that Ventura recently spoke to teammates of his plan to drill Bautista during their next encounter—something that the league could investigate and factor into his upcoming suspension.
Toronto and Kansas City next square off in a July 4–6 series at the Skydome. It remains to be seen if Ventura is still a Royal then, or if he's become somebody else’s royal pain.