Royals Making Mistake in Sending Down Yordano Ventura

The big news out of Kansas City today is that starting pitcher Yordano Ventura is being sent down to AAA for “struggles”. The same Yordano Ventura who was a revelation last October, christened “the new Pedro”, and was the Royals Opening Day starter this season. While Ventura spots an ugly 5.19, it is a somewhat misleading ERA- something ERA often does. Ventura should not have been sent down, and is in fact, their best pitcher. For a team trying to make it back to the World Series, this move sure does seem like a head scratcher. But if we take a closer look, maybe we can find something that the Royals didn’t like.

To start, here are Ventura’s 2014 numbers.

183 IP, 7.82 K/9, 3.39 BB/9, 0.69 HR/9, 3.60 FIP, 3.74 xFIP, 2.4 fWAR (2.6/200IP)

For a 23 year old rookie, those are some good numbers. Most of those numbers are above average and as mentioned, he was 23 with a FB velocity just over 96MPH.

Now compare that to 2015…

76.1 IP, 7.66 K/9, 2.95 BB/9, 0.83 HR/9, 3.69 FIP, 3.68 xFIP, 1.0 fWAR (2.6/200IP)

His K rate is pretty much the same and he traded less walks for more home runs. His FIP is about the same from 2014 and he is on pace for the same fWAR. So, what’s the problem? Where is the perceived struggle? Let’s dig a little bit deeper.

Last year Ventura had a BABIP of .288 and a LOB% of 73.5%. This year those are .321 and 64.8% respectively. Despite pretty similar peripherals to 2014 (his K% is down just 1% and his BB% is better by just 1%), he has been unlucky on balls in put in play, leading to more runs and thus an ERA that jumped two runs, from 3.20 to 5.19. So that must explain the discrepancy between FIP and ERA, the numbers will normalize, and the Royals are nuts…right?

Well, the story doesn’t end there. There may be a reason for the higher percentage of home runs and balls in play landing for hits. If you look at his soft, medium, and hard hit ball percentage you will see some major differences. Last year 20.2% of balls hit were classified as soft v 25.1% classified as hard. In 2015, only 10.5% of balls hit are considered soft while 33.3% are considered hard. Along with that, his pull percentage went from 40.3% to 49.6%, with that difference coming entirely from balls hit to the opposite field. His contact percentage on balls in the zone has gone up 5.1%. All of the above can explain why his BABIP and HR% have both increased.

What can explain this discrepancy? I am not quite sure. His 4-seam and 2-seam fastballs are each down 1 MPH, but a 1 MPH decrease shouldn’t create such drastic changes. Moreover, even with the slight drop in velocity his FB reaches 95-97 MPH, which is still hard. Looking at his Pitch F/X values, the only pitch that is noticeably worse than 2014 is his 4 seam FB, which he throws more than any other pitch (38.8% of the time, down from 53.9% in 2014). Its value is -7.4 or 7.4 runs below average, a drop of about 13 runs from 6.3 in 2014. You take 13 runs off his season line, and suddenly you have a 3.66 ERA.

As to why his FB is so hittable and leading to harder hit balls that batters can pull, I don’t know. I am not good with Pitch F/X and it would be great if someone were to do the analysis on it.The obvious guess is that he is not locating in the zone, which can explain the fewer walks (more balls in the zone and more balls in play before getting deep in the count), higher contact percentage, more balls in play being pulled, and more balls being hit hard at the expense of soft hits.

Yet in spite of his struggles with the FB, Ventura has still been above average this season and the Royals best starter. Whatever is going on, I am sure it is something he can fix at the ML level. In a perfect world you might want to send him down to work on mechanics or whatever the problem is- release point, tipping pitches, grip, etc- but when you are trying to contend for the division and the pennant, you cannot replace your #1 starting pitcher down the stretch.

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