Three nights ago, Yordano Ventura was posing for pictures with the Pacific Coast League championship trophy in Salt Lake City. Tonight he will take the mound in Kansas City for his big league debut for the Kansas City Royals as they chase a wild-card berth.
Royals fans will get to see Ventura's frequent Twitter hashtag #LetsThrowFire come to life at Kauffman Stadium. Omaha manager Mike Jirschele says Ventura has a better fastball than Zack Greinke. He certainly throws harder than Greinke, hitting 102 on the radar gun in a Storm Chasers uniform on numerous occasions. Ventura's fastball doesn't move as much as Greinke's, but it does have tremendous pop at the end.
Ventura was 5-4 with a 3.74 ERA for Omaha in 15 games (14 starts) this season, earning him Prospect of the Year honors with the Storm Chasers.
Here are a few things to watch for in his debut:
First Inning Results
Ventura struggled in the first inning for Omaha, posting a 5.14 ERA, giving up eight earned runs on 17 hits and eight walks in 14 innings. Reminiscent of Luke Hochevar early in his career as a starter, Ventura gets so amped up for his starts that he tends to overthrow in the first inning which causes him to either miss up in the zone or to miss the zone altogether.
His ERA did drop to 3.21 in the second inning, 3.00 in the third and then 1.80 in the fourth, but as the pitches piled up, it went back up again to 3.29 in the fifth and 6.75 in the sixth.
Let's see if he can calm his nerves enough tonight to get through the first inning unscathed, which might set him up to be more successful later in the game.
Ventura's command is a problem at times. He issued 33 walks in 77.0 innings, but he also struck out 81 hitters - better than one per inning. And, as is the case with most power arms, his pitch count tends to pile up on him.
"That's very common for a young power pitcher like Yordano," said Omaha radio broadcaster Mark Nasser in a phone interview. "He's still only 22 and to have incredible command at that age with that type of power arm can be very difficult.
"But [pitching coach] Larry Carter did a lot of things to work with him to change his balance by leveling his shoulders. There were times when it looked like he was raring back and trying to overpower hitters and he would miss with pitches up. Larry really tried to work with him to keep his shoulders level to the plate so he could keep the ball down in the zone better.
"I think there was progress with that. Obviously, it's not where they hope it will be in the future, but he's shown the ability to have command for good periods of time. In his last start in the playoffs, he had great command of his curveball early on and it was just downright nasty. Once he has command of the curveball he's just really tough to hit."
Ventura has only pitched into the sixth inning five times for Omaha this season. Part of that was due to his command issues, but part of that was by design. He tossed 109 1/3 innings in 2012 and Nasser says the Royals didn't want to increase those innings much beyond 25-30% this season. In 2013, he has thrown 134 2/3 innings, including his numbers from NW Arkansas.
"He's about there now," Nasser said. "I think they were trying to keep his innings down and they did that by limiting his pitch count. That gives him the chance to pitch tonight for the Kansas City Royals. He would not be pitching for Kansas City tonight if he hadn't had a pitch count and an innings limit. He would be shut down for the remainder of the year."
His Willingness to Pitch Inside
Ventura was for more effective against left-handed hitters (.222 in 144 at-bats) than right-handed hitters in Omaha (.318 in 151 at-bats). Part of the reason could be that he isn't as comfortable pitching inside to righties as he is lefties.
"One of the things Jirschele and Carter both preached to Ventura was pitching inside a lot more," Nasser said. "If you look at his hits per innings pitched [he gave up 80 hits in 77.0 innings in Omaha], it's about one per inning and for a guy with that type of power, you would like for him to be a little more dominating. When you throw as hard as he does, it's so tough to get around on him, and then when you pitch inside and make them hit it with the thin part of the bat it's not going very far and it's not going to be hit hard."
Nasser says Ventura will use his change-up more often to lefties and he says Ventura is just more comfortable coming inside to lefties.
By the way, you'll love the way Nasser describes the movement on Ventura's change-up.
"It's 88 miles per hour and has movement like a two-seam fastball," he said. "It really kind of dives down and it can be a very tough pitch. It's a pitch he doesn't throw often though so he doesn't throw it for strikes as often either."
For all of these reasons and more, Triple-A has been an important part of Ventura's journey to the big leagues. As he matures and gets around major league veterans who can help him even more, hopes are high in Kansas City.
"If you total up his numbers and take a look at the big picture, I think the Royals will be very pleased with the overall progress he has made this year and it sets him up for 2014. I'm sure he's going to be able to compete for a spot in the rotation in the spring," Nasser said.