To the casual fan, Royals starter Yordano Ventura stood out for two primary reasons: his ability to summon triple-digit velocity with rare frequency for a starting pitcher (particularly given that he stood just 6 feet tall), and his penchant for winding up at the center of controversy when he misused his brilliant, electrifying fastball. In the wake of his tragic death in a car accident on Sunday in the Dominican Republic at the age of 25, it's worth remembering his brightest moments on the field and the times when he harnessed his vast potential.
What follows here are five that stand out most vividly. They're listed in chronological order; together, they trace the arc of his all-too-brief major league career.
MLB Debut: Sept. 17, 2013 versus Cleveland
The Royals signed Ventura in October 2008, despite the fact that he stood just 5'10", weighed 137 pounds and looked 14 years old rather than 17; the scouts at the team's academy were impressed with his velocity and his arm action. He spent 2009 and part of '10 pitching in the Dominican Summer League before coming stateside, then made steady progress up the minor league ladder. By 2013, he was on all of the major prospect lists, and after pitching well at Double and Triple A, the Royals recalled him in mid-September. In his debut, he faced the Indians, who were bound for 92 wins and a spot in the AL wild-card game.
The 22-year-old Ventura had already gained renown for his ability to reach triple digits with his heater, having done so while pitching for the World team in the 2012 and '13 All-Star Futures Games. On this evening at Kauffman Stadium, he broke 100 half a dozen times, via the numbers at Brooks Baseball, which measures pitch velocity at the 55-foot mark typical of most release points rather than the 50-foot MLB Gameday standard. He held the Indians scoreless for the first five innings, but the first hit he gave up was a memorable one: It came on a 102.7-mph pitch (as recorded by Brooks) that Yan Gomes lined into centerfield for a single. Even at its "official" velocity of 101.9 according to MLB data, it was the fastest pitch thrown by a starter in five years.
Via Pitch Info founder Harry Pavlidis (whose data powers Brooks Baseball), Ventura accounted for 11 of the 22 pitches of at least 102 mph from starters since the beginning of 2008, with Justin Verlander responsible for 10 (all from '10 to '12) and Nathan Eovaldi for one. Via Baseball Savant's searchable database, which uses the standard Gameday data, in the timespan since Ventura's debut, his 68 pitches of at least 100 mph trailed only Eovaldi (112) and Noah Syndergaard (97) among starters.
As for the debut, Ventura scattered five hits and two walks over 5 2/3 innings and struck out three, with his teammates staking him to a 3–0 lead. Ventura's last pitch of the night, which also topped 100 mph, was an RBI single by Michael Brantley, the lone run he allowed. Alas, the Royals' bullpen, which had not yet assumed its vaunted status, yielded four more runs en route to a 5–3 loss.
World Series Game 6: Oct. 28, 2014 versus San Francisco
The 23-year-old Ventura didn't just put together a strong rookie season, posting a 3.20 ERA with 7.8 strikeouts per nine in 186 innings; he also helped the Royals to their first postseason appearance since 1985. Ventura had some strong moments in the playoffs, including a seven-inning, one-run start in Game 2 of the Division Series against the Angels and a 5 1/3-inning, two-run performance in Game 2 of the World Series against the Giants, but none was bigger or more emotional than his Game 6 start in the Fall Classic.
When Ventura took the mound that night, he was grieving over the loss of his friend Oscar Taveras, a 22-year-old Cardinals outfielder and fellow Dominican who had been killed in a car accident just two days earlier at the age of 22. That death eerily foreshadowed Ventura's own fate, but with a heavy heart, a cap that read "RIP O.T. #18" and a fastball that maintained its triple-digit velocity into the seventh inning, he pitched the game of his life, holding the Giants scoreless. His teammates pounced on opposite number Jake Peavy en route to a 10–0 win that forced a decisive Game 7, albeit one that the Royals lost due to the heroics of Madison Bumgarner.
The Comeback: July 26, 2015 versus Houston
The first half of Ventura's 2015 season was a rocky one that featured a trio of testy exchanges with opponents, including a seven-game suspension for inciting a brawl against the White Sox, and then a four-week absence due to an irritated ulnar nerve. After being cuffed for six runs and 10 hits by the Pirates in his July 20 start—ballooning his ERA to 5.19—he was optioned to Triple A the next day, but that night, Jason Vargas tore his own UCL. Ventura, who had never actually left town, was officially recalled less than 24 hours after the demotion.
Taking Vargas's spot in the rotation four days later, Ventura outdueled AL All-Star starter Dallas Keuchel (who would win that year's AL Cy Young award) by throwing seven stellar innings, allowing just one run on six hits, walking nobody and striking out five. "It was the old Ventura," said manager Ned Yost after the game. "He was fantastic.”
Though Ventura's next two starts were uneven, that outing—which came on the same day that the team traded a trio of pitching prospects for Johnny Cueto—saved his spot in the rotation, and began a 14-start run over which he posted a 3.10 ERA and struck out 9.4 per nine. Nine of those 14 starts were quality; in three of them, he struck out 11, setting and then matching his career high. That run also helped the Royals win the AL Central.
AL Championship Series Game 6: Oct. 24, 2015 versus Toronto
The Royals beat the Astros in the Division Series and took a 3–2 series lead in the ALCS as it returned to Kauffman Stadium. To that point, Ventura had scuffled in his three postseason starts, allowing three runs in less than six innings each time. Still, the team was in a position to sew up its second straight AL pennant, and Yost expressed confidence in the 24-year-old righty, saying before the game, "If he’s commanding his breaking ball, he’s going to be extremely tough tonight.”
Ventura rose to the occasion. Pitching exclusively from the stretch, he located 15 of his 21 curves and 26 of his 38 offspeed pitches for strikes. He allowed just four hits and one run—via a Jose Bautista solo home run—in 5 1/3 innings and struck out five, all of them on his curve. He did get in a staredown with Troy Tulowitzki over a late timeout call but otherwise kept his emotions in check and departed with a 2–1 lead that the Royals would expand to 3–1 before the Blue Jays tied it up in top of the eighth. After a 45-minute rain delay, Lorenzo Cain's mad dash from first base on Eric Hosmer's eighth-inning single scored the pennant-winning run, sending Ventura and company to the World Series.
The Complete Game: Sept. 19, 2016 versus Chicago
As in 2015, Ventura was stronger in the second half (3.73 ERA, 4.30 FIP, 7.4 strikeouts per nine) than the first (5.15 ERA, 4.87 FIP, 6.6 K/9) last season. During that run, he pitched notched the only two complete games of his major league career, first with an eight-inning, three-run effort in defeat against the Rangers on July 28 in Arlington and then his lone nine-inning outing in Kansas City.
Though he struck out his first two hitters to start the game, Ventura got knocked around for a trio of hits in the second and didn't look likely to go the distance. However, a caught stealing helped keep the damage to a single run, and the Royals countered with a pair of solo homers off White Sox starter Carlos Rodon in the bottom of the frame. While Ventura went on to yield solo homers to Jose Abreu and Carlos Sanchez, he was efficient, using no more than 14 pitches in any inning and walking just one batter while the Kansas City offense banged out eight runs.
In the ninth, two pitches after his lone 100-mph pitch of the night, Ventura froze Sanchez looking at a curveball for his fifth strikeout and his 106th pitch of the game.
It was the 38th regular-season win of Ventura’s career. Unfortunately, there would never be another.