Recently, inside the Kansas City Royals’ clubhouse, Yordano Ventura was talking about how he planned on hitting Jose Bautista with a pitch the next time he faced him. The people around Ventura rolled their eyes, tired of the bluster, done with the immaturity, hopeful he was playing fugazi instead of the on-field arsonist they’d seen too many times for their liking. Among his teammates and in the Royals’ front office alike, they’ve long waited for Ventura to grow up, only to end up amazed at how he manages to plumb beneath even his own low standards.
Yordano Ventura, petulant child, roared back to life Tuesday night, when after missing Manny Machado twice with brushback pitches during his second at-bat he planted a 99-mph fastball in Machado’s ribs in the third. Were this some other pitcher, maybe any other, Machado would’ve shaken off the pain and hobbled to first base. That it happened to be someone who in three consecutive starts last season incited benches to clear provided the tinder, kindling and logs for a Machado spark that otherwise would’ve idly died.
And so there Machado was, perhaps the American League MVP favorite, limping toward Ventura, then summoning the strength to throw an overhand right, then DDTing the right-hander into the mound on which he wastes such natural ability. There is a reason why his catcher didn’t sprint to stop the lurching Machado, why his manager admitted after the game that the Royals have grown weary of him, why, according to executives from two teams, the Royals within the past month have offered Ventura up in trade talks: For an act this tired, the performance must validate it, and the chasm between Ventura’s performance and potential is grand.
All three of these issues are pertinent, and it’s worth visiting them in reverse order. Yes, sources said, the Royals have broached other teams’ interest in Ventura, who because he still can throw a baseball 99 mph isn’t yet the sort of dead money only John Oliver would buy. After tonight, though, his ERA is 5.32, his strikeout rate 92nd of 107 qualified starters, his walk rate 105th of 107. And this with a guaranteed three years and $21.25 million left on his contract.
Now, if Ventura is anything like the starter he’s capable of being – in addition to the fastball, his curveball and changeup each are above-average pitches when he controls them – then that’s a great deal, particularly with a pair of $12 million club options tacked on at the end. If another team sees Ventura instead as a relief pitcher in the Kelvin Herrera mold, well, $21 million for three years of top-notch relief is a bargain in a bullpen market two GMs said they expect to explode in price this offseason.
This takes Ventura’s situation back to his manager, Ned Yost, and how he plans to handle the 25-year-old going forward. The Royals have coddled Ventura through these moments in the past, nursed him back from arm injuries that so many feared would portend the full-on blowout that tends to accompany triple-digit fastballs, and more than anything stuck by him through his temper tantrums. To see Yost, then, admit Royals players “probably” were frustrated by Ventura’s actions – well, that’s as close to a public rebuke as Yost, a die-hard players manager, ever will come.
Granted, it didn’t take a body-language expert to suss that out after Salvador Perez, who in past situations had done everything he could to protect Ventura, didn’t really bother to stop the 6-foot-3 Machado from punching him. Machado almost certainly will get the longer suspension because no brawl exists if he walks to first base. At the same time, when Ventura throws 59 pitches, and the very hardest is the one he grooved into Machado’s side, there exists that natural inclination among those handing out penalties to factor in who did the throwing.
It is the pitcher who stared down Mike Trout after a single up the middle and called out Trout for having the temerity to score a run. It is the pitcher who, in his next start, hit Brett Lawrie and needed Perez to physically remove him from the situation. It is the pitcher who, in his third straight start last April, made something of nothing and cemented this reputation that dogs him today.
“The talent is all there, but between the ears, there is a circuit board off-balance,” Orioles center fielder Adam Jones told reporters at Camden Yards. “I don’t get it. I don’t get it.”
Orioles manager Buck Showalter admitted after the game he warned Machado he might get hit after the two misses and the words exchanged following Machado’s flyout in the second inning. It didn’t take a baseball lifer like Showalter to see it, either. Ventura is the rare person who lives down to his reputation.
And because of it, he completed his place Tuesday in a circle with players whose belligerence is offset by their production. Machado once fought Toronto third baseman Josh Donaldson, who tried to plow through Rougned Odor after he clocked Jose Bautista, who beefed with Ventura, who now danced with Machado.
Time exists for Ventura to grow up, if, in fact, that’s something he desires, which it may be, seeing as the team that forever stood by him is willing to offer him up in trades. This could be his come-to-Jesus moment, this embarrassing pitching, this embarrassing brawl, this embarrassing year where a 100-mph-throwing starter stumbled on his way to earning that Ace Ventura nickname and ended up more like Ray Finkle.
The Royals play the Blue Jays on July 4, and perhaps by then Ventura will understand that vengeance against Bautista for their August 2015 war of words is an outcome best avoided by all. Expecting that, of course, would be hoping for too much, because Ventura is the anti-monk. He long ago forsook self-control and chuckled at asceticism and made a career of it anyway, that great were his gifts.
Those only buy so much time, so much leeway, and every unnecessary incident magnifies the ticking of his clock and shortens his leash. If anything comes out of this, it’s a reminder of the same thing people in baseball were saying a year ago, the same thing they’ll continue to say until it actually happens.
It’s time for Yordano Ventura to grow up.