The tell-tale signs appeared for Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland on March 6. He watched Yordano Ventura’s delivery malfunction from overexertion as he faced the Giants. His command wavered, and his results suffered.
His vaunted arsenal — the triple-digit fastball, devastating curveball, burgeoning change-up —allowed him to survive. But the Royals seek more than survival. In the second inning, Eiland pulled aside Bruce Chen with a question: Can you talk to him?
Ventura won’t turn 23 until June. His English is spotty. Chen jokes about requiring a raise to continue translating for him with reporters. But Eiland views Chen as a valuable resource, part of his multi-pronged approach to tutoring Ventura for the coming season.
“His stuff is plenty good,” Chen said. “He doesn’t have to put in anything extra.”
Ventura learned this lesson himself in his subsequent start, a 4 1/3-inning destruction of the Athletics on Wednesday. He struck out six, walked none and presented himself as the obvious favorite to win this team’s fifth-starter competition. He threw strikes to both sides of the plate, and demonstrated composure that impressed observers.
The team has yet to hand Ventura the job, not with Danny Duffy still in the competition. But the writing is on the wall — and in the pitching schedule, where Ventura is currently slotted behind Shields and No. 2 starter Jason Vargas. This spring, team officials are preparing him for the rigors of the 200 innings general manager Dayton Moore has tabbed for him.
Eiland praised Ventura’s aptitude at such a young age. But to emphasize his lessons, he has enlisted the help of Chen, James Shields and catcher Salvador Perez. Chen deflects credit for aiding Ventura. He views himself merely as a conduit for advice from Eiland and Shields.
“They love the way he throws,” Chen said. “But sometimes, to communicate, it’s easier if they tell me, and I tell him.”
Before the game, manager Ned Yost explained how Tigers ace Justin Verlander blossomed from thrower to pitcher. Verlander learned to use a fastball in the lowers 90s in the early innings. As the innings wore on and his comfort increased, his velocity spiked. Yost considered the lesson instructive for younger pitchers like Ventura and Duffy.
With Ventura, Eiland is unsure if such restraint is possible. When he talks about the velocity, his voice quiets. He almost whispers. He cannot ask Ventura to dial back, as that would upset his mechanics and risk injury. Eiland’s only instruction is to stay within his delivery, keep himself balanced and let his arm do the work.
“If you tell him that, it’s just going to be 100 mph,” Eiland said. “That’s just what the kid’s blessed with. Good for him, and great for us.”
Shields painted the pitching staff as a cohesive unit. He helped foster these relationships upon his arrival from Tampa Bay last season. He relies on suggestions from veterans like Jeremy Guthrie or Jason Vargas. For Ventura, a big-league novice, any ancillary help is critical.
One day earlier this spring, Shields watched Ventura warm up. Shields and Eiland noticed how much effort Venture exerted. His intensity in that relaxed setting matched his effort in games. They counseled him to concentrate on finding a rhythm and his arm slot. You won’t make this team by impressing in a bullpen session, they explained.
“If you’re petering out in the bullpen, and you go in the game, the next thing you know, you’re thigh-high rather than at the knees,” Shields said.
On Wednesday afternoon, Eiland witnessed the result. Ventura warmed up around 70 percent until his last 10 throws. Only then did the intensity increase.
Ventura threw 55 pitches on Wednesday. Eiland estimated Ventura “came out of his delivery” only three or four times. In those moments, he whistled and delivered a signal to Perez, who interpreted and delivered the message to Ventura.
“And boom — a credit to him — he got right back on it,” Eiland said. “He feels it now.”
The growing pains do not end here. But for a few moments on Wednesday, as he tore apart the defending American League West champions, Ventura displayed what was possible.
“When you have command with that type of stuff, yesterday is what you get,” Eiland said. “And he still can be much better than he was yesterday. He’s on the right track.”