While a lot of pitchers are making headlines this season for the worst possible reason -- a visit to Dr. James Andrews -- elbow-related attrition hasn’t claimed every promising young arm with a chance of contributing. Madison Bumgarner, Sonny Gray and Julio Teheran are among the talented under-25 starters doing their part for contending teams without a trace of ulnar collateral ligament-related drama.
For fans of the Giants, Athletics and Braves, I’ll throw in the obligatory “knock on wood” as a safeguard against bad news and a flood of angry emails.
Kansas City right-hander Yordano Ventura qualifies as an escape artist. A little more than two weeks ago, Ventura left a start against Houston in the third inning with lateral elbow discomfort. Although the Royals claimed the injury was nothing major, the recent spate of Tommy John surgery-mania and the defeatism borne of 28 straight playoff-free seasons prompted Kansas City diehards to dust off their jump-to-conclusions mats and assume the worst.
Rany Jazayerli, dermatologist by day and accomplished baseball writer, historian and Royals watcher by night, reflected the sense of desperation and foreboding in Kansas City with a series of Tweets that made him seem like a man badly in need of a hug:
The good news is I can now defend my proposal of Ventura for Howie Kendrick last year. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to vomit violently.
— Rany Jazayerli (@jazayerli) May 27, 2014
The storm quickly passed when tests revealed that Ventura’s injury was, indeed, minor, and that he would only miss one turn through the rotation. Two weeks and one clean MRI later, Ventura is back on the mound as the embodiment of two baseball clichés: He’s a 23-year-old prodigy with an “electric arm” and the talent to develop into something “special.”
In a Wednesday matinee matchup with fellow prospect Trevor Bauer, Ventura lit up radar guns and imaginations on the way to a 4-1 victory over the Cleveland Indians. He stifled a predominantly left-handed-hitting lineup, giving up six hits, while striking out three and walking none. Ventura also displayed admirable pitch efficiency, throwing 61 strikes and 24 balls before giving way to Wade Davis in the eighth inning.
Let’s put it this way: He was a whole lot more exciting than Kansas City’s franchise-record-tying four sacrifice flies.
In hindsight, general manager Dayton Moore insists the Royals never hyperventilated or felt a sense of doom when Ventura complained of discomfort in his right elbow and the velocity on his fastball dipped into the low 90s against the Astros. Even as Ventura’s teammates betrayed some signs of edginess over his fate, the Kansas City braintrust was confident that the episode was just a blip.
“We have a good trusting relationship with Yordano,” Moore said by phone Wednesday. “He wasn’t hiding anything from us. He’s grown up in the system, so we can read his body language pretty good, and he wanted to stay in that game.
“I knew within 10 minutes after seeing him in the clubhouse and talking to him and our medical team that it wasn’t an issue. We’ve seen enough of these in the past that you get a feeling almost immediately when someone is hurt. You can’t paralyze yourself with those types of thoughts.”
Moore tries his best to downplay the impact that Ventura can have on the Kansas City staff this season. The Royals have their resident horse in James Shields, a couple of solid veterans in Jason Vargas and Jeremy Guthrie and two young homegrown products in Ventura and Danny Duffy in the rotation, and two major weapons at the back end of the bullpen in Davis and closer Greg Holland. It’s going to take a group effort for them to overcome an offense that ranks 28th in the big leagues with a .665 OPS and last in homers with 31.
Nevertheless, it’s a wondrous sight to behold when triple-digit velocity, pitching acumen and charisma coalesce in a 6-foot, 180-pound package. Those Pedro Martinez comparisons in the minors were a tad onerous, but Ventura is flashing signs that bode well for long-term success. Some numbers courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information:
He’s spending enough time in the strike zone that he ranks sixth in the American League with a swing percentage of 48.6.
After throwing the ball down in the zone 38 percent of the time in April and May, Ventura has done it 44 percent of the time in two June starts. In Wednesday’s outing, he tied his season high with 12 ground-ball outs.
The Royals will continue to watch him closely because industry protocol demands it. Like all teams, the Royals monitor pitch counts for their starters, pick their spots on when to push and when to back off the kids, and are readily aware of the recent position statement released by the American Sports Medicine Institute.
But the reality says it’s all a crapshoot in the end. Pitchers with high-stress deliveries get hurt and those with fluid mechanics have blowouts. Some go down with arm injuries after being treated with tender loving care while others remain healthy despite heavy workloads.
And it’s not just elbow injuries. In spring training, the Royals had reason to hope that 2012 first-round pick Kyle Zimmer might be their version of Michael Wacha this season. He suffered a lat injury in May, and he’s not expected to pick up a baseball for another six weeks. If he arrives by September, that’ll probably be a bonus.
“There’s no pitcher I’ve ever been around who’s more physical than Kyle Zimmer, or in better shape, or repeats his delivery the way he does,” Moore said. “Mechanically he’s flawless, and he’s had some issues. It’s hard to predict.”
So in a season marked by an avalanche of bad news, it was both heartening and entertaining to see Yordano Ventura notching the occasional 100 on the radar gun and living up to his “Ace’’ nickname Wednesday. Even if the Cleveland hitters might not share this opinion, it was a good day for baseball.