Let's say that you can throw a baseball 100 miles per hour. Let's also say you can do that routinely. First, you're a freak. I mean that in the nicest way possible; 697 of the best baseball players in the world have thrown a pitch in the Major Leagues, and two (dos, zwei, 2) average 100 MPH on their fastball, or three tenths of a percent of all MLB pitchers. Three tenths of one percent is a tiny number. For reference, Kauffman Stadium holds three tenths of one percent of the entire Kansas City metro seven times over.
But some pitchers touch 100 MPH without averaging it. That's fine. It's one thing to have a Ferrari, but quite another to average 100 MPH on the highway--you only touch 100 MPH, you say to the police officer who has pulled you over for the third time this week. Anyway, Yordano Ventura, starting pitcher for the Kansas City Royals, is one of those 'I-can-hurl-a-baseball-100 MPH-all-by-myself' kind of humans, and that's why he's in the Major Leagues.
So, again, let's say you're one of these rare 100 MPH unicorns. Even the best pitchers in baseball don't have that talent, which is like being able to curl your tongue and raise one eyebrow at the same time except useful. If you were designing a pitching repertoire with that talent, you'd probably come up with something like this:
- Throw the ball HARD
- Fast, gotta go fast, Soooooonic the Hedgehoggggg
- Ok, throw the ball fast, right by them
- Bleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeewwwww (that's the sound of it going right by them)
- Also, a cut fastball, because watching something cut at 97 MPH seems impressive
- How about a 90 MPH changeup? Done
- Finally, a slider or maybe a curveball or maybe BOTH, because I Am Death, Destroyer of Bats
You'd start with the fact that you can throw the ball 100 MPH and then go from there. Pitches thrown fast are generally harder to hit*. After keeping them on their toes, terrified of a triple-digit blur, you would throw other things, slower things with break and deviousness, and the result would be a feedback loop that made the fastball even better. You can't really think about hitting a blazing fastball and a devastating slider at the same time. That's called Aroldis Chapman.
*Once when I was a teenager, after taking a few volleys of ball from the soft pitch machine in preparation for the super important Smithville Church Softball League, I sauntered over to the 80 MPH machine pitch. Everything else was in slow motion, because the balls were going in fast forward. I felt like I had to start swinging before the ball even got to the machine. I barely hit one of them and fouled it back, tears streaming down my face as I held my arms aloft like Rocky.** This, I imagine, is what it is like facing a Ventura or (heaven forbid) Chapman fastball.
**That part's not true. But it could be.
And that's what Ventura should be. He should use his fastball as his main weapon, both a tool for ravaging and pillaging of hopes, dreams, and base hits and as a tool to set up his curveball and changeup to ravage hopes, dreams, and base hits. He's got all the talent, and he's been through the postseason ringer. So why hasn't he blossomed into an ace? Well, you could say, he exhibits the anger restraint of a toddler. You would be correct. But other than that--plenty of people have toddler social skills, so why isn't Ventura an ace?
Fastball. It's his fastball.
Now that seems ludicrous, like that time you learned that Pluto is not a planet and is, rather, a planetoid, or when you learned that tomatoes aren't vegetables and are, rather, really delicious clown noses. But! It's true. Ventura's fastball is to blame, and I can prove it with numbers!
But it's also not just numbers. Because this is baseball, and baseball is not played with numbers, but with actual real life people, there is plenty of video evidence to suggest that, yes, people are clobbering Ventura's fastball.
Let's start with the numbers, though. Here's what the raw numbers say:
For those of you who don't know, FA is four-seam fastball, FT is two-seam fastball, CU is curveball, CH is changeup, and FC is cutter.
Just look at that wRC+ (or, if you prefer, OPS) against both his two and four-seam fastballs! That's crazy. Nobody can touch Ventura's curveball, and his changeup is still situationally effective. But people are just murdering his fastballs. Here's his home runs given up by pitch this year:
- Four seam: 15
- Two seam: 3
- Changeup: 3
- Curveball: 3
On that last one, 94 MPH isn't blazing, but it's certainly not nothing. Regardless, 94 MPH should be plenty fast enough, and if you need 96 or 97 to succeed then you're just not doing it right.
You see, each additional MPH that you add to your fastball gets you more swings and whiffs in a vacuum. What that means in real life is that you can make 'mistake pitches,' so if they are reaching towards triple digits then you might not get punished for it. For his entire life, Ventura has just been decimating people with his fastball. But in Major League Baseball, where the freakiest freaks of nature play against each other, that's just not the case. Major Leaguers can clobber an upper 90s poorly located fastball. That bears out in Ventura's career numbers, too; players have a .730 OPS against Ventura's four-seam fastball, and a ludicrous .859 OPS against Ventura's two-seam fastball.
Perhaps most importantly is that batters aren't swinging and missing at Ventura's fastball this year. Across all types of fastballs, Ventura has a 5.8% strikeout rate. That low of a number also suggests that Ventura isn't locating well, and if you've watched any of Ventura's pitching this year, you know that's true.
This fastball problem doesn't affect everybody with high velocity, though. Check out the same pitch mixes for St. Louis Cardinals' pitcher Carlos Martinez:
..and our very own Danny Duffy, who is much more of a left-handed version of Ventura than we probably realize:
Both Martinez and Duffy throw their average fastball within 1 MPH of Ventura's, both use four-seam and two-seam fastballs, and both utilize changeups and curveballs as their other two pitches.
Fastballs are always going to be the pitch that is hit the hardest. It's the easiest to prepare for, and it's often used in situations in which the hitter has the advantage. Nobody throws a 3-0 changeup with the bases loaded.
But Martinez and Duffy's fastballs aren't getting hammered like Ventura's are (well, excepting Duffy's two-seam, but his four-seam is just fine so that's something). And part of that is location and pure stuff. Ventura is getting a strikeout on his best fastball only 9% of the time; Martinez' 19% is double that, and Duffy's 25% is inching closer to triple. And Ventura is walking more batters than striking them out with his fastball, which Martinez and Duffy are avoiding with a really similar repitoire.
More than anything, Ventura's fastball struggles are sinking him. His fastballs are worse than his career averages in almost every category.
But...something changed partially through this season. In Ventura's first 17 starts, he tossed a 5.15 ERA and a .740 OPS against. In Ventura's last 11 starts dating back to July 8, he has twirled a 2.90 ERA and a .687 OPS against. Why, you say?
(Brooks Baseball classifies Ventura's two-seam as a sinker)
Notice that, in July, his four-seam fastball usage started to plummet. In August, Ventura's two-seam fastball usage started to spike. In his one start this month, that trend continued.
We all know that Ventura is talented. He's got the pitches. If he can shift his arsenal around so that the fastball is used more of a tool than a bludgeon, then everyone will benefit. Except his opponents. Then his opponents will whiff, and whiff gloriously. All praise to the future of Ventura and his fastball.