102.9 mph: Royals rookie Yordano Ventura lights up radar gun versus Rays
It was his 93rd pitch of the night, a four-seam fastball to the Rays' Wil Myers, coming after a quartet of curveballs put the count at 2-2 with two outs in the top of the sixth inning. Yordano Ventura, the Royals' 22-year-old rookie making his first start of the season and just the fourth of his major league career, had allowed just two hits over 5 2/3 scoreless innings, striking out five, including Myers twice, and walking none. Having failed to get Myers to offer at his curveball, Ventura decided he'd try to blow him away, likely hoping the next pitch would be his last of the night, or, at the very least, of the inning. His catcher, Salavador Perez, put the target right in the middle of the strike zone, and Ventura's pitch headed straight for it ... at 102.9 miles per hour.
That pitch, which Myers miraculously fouled back (only to strike out looking two pitches later), was, according to some accounts, the fastest pitch thrown by a starting pitcher in the history of Major League Baseball's Pitch f/x data, which was first used in the 2006 playoffs and was in place in every ballpark by 2008. I say by some accounts, because the game-by-game Pitch f/x data at BrooksBaseball.net lists the fastest pitch Ventura threw in his major league debut against the Indians on Sept. 17 of last year (a pitch that catcher Yan Gomes singled on for the first Cleveland hit of that game) as having been 102.95 miles per hour, compared to 102.85 for the pitch to Myers. What is undisputed, however, is that those two Ventura pitches are the two fastest by a starting pitcher ever recorded by Pitch f/x.
The fastest pitch by any pitcher that Pitch f/x has recorded was, famously, a 105.1 mph fastball from a then-22-year-old Aroldis Chapman to the Padres' Tony Gwynn Jr. on Sept. 24, 2010. Chapman's average fastball that season, per Brooks Baseball, was 100.5 miles per hour. Last year, his heater averaged 99.2 mph. On Tuesday night, over the course of 95 pitches, roughly two weeks worth of tosses for an effective closer like Chapman, Ventura's fastball averaged 99.5 mph. By way of comparison, the highest average fastball speed for a qualified starter last season was Stephen Strasburg's 96.2 mph. Strasburg, incidentally, averaged 98.9 mph over 12 starts as a 21-year-old rookie in 2010, before having Tommy John surgery that September.
Fastball velocity isn't everything, of course. Even a pitcher armed with triple-digit heat needs control, secondary pitches and, above all else, health to succeed. Ventura, who has walked just six batters in his first four major league starts, has sufficient control. He also has a plus curveball, made good use of his changeup Tuesday night, and, while his four-seam fastball is pretty straight, he can cut and sink the ball by easing off into the upper 90s. That's unfair.
While Ventura's velocity will likely erode as he ages, his whip-like frame fills out and/or he deals with injury (watch how violently his arm recoils after that pitch to Myers in the video linked above), he has entered the league with the necessary skills to counter that erosion with potential growth as a pitcher. The only significant concern about Ventura is, of course, injury. He's listed at 6-foot, 180 pounds, but likely falls short of both tallies. It's extremely difficult to predict which pitchers will need Tommy John surgery and which won't, but it's hard to deny that Ventura's potential and the sense of needing to see him at his most explosive are every bit as compelling as his fastball. Ventura's next start is scheduled for Tuesday against the Astros in Houston. If he can make that early-April Royals-Astros matchup compelling, it might be his most impressive achievement yet.