Ventura gained strength and velocity quickly, hitting 100 mph and sitting in the mid-90s by the time he made his U.S. debut in 2010. But because his secondary pitches were erratic and his delivery featured significant effort, many scouts pegged him as a reliever. At the end of 2012, Ventura had made just six appearances above high Class A and his long-term future as a starter remained murky.
That seems like a lot longer than two years ago. Last season, Ventura improved his curveball and changeup enough that evaluators stopped wondering if he could stick in the rotation. After making his big league debut last September, he's now helping Kansas City contend for its first playoff berth since 1985, the year it won its only World Series championship. No rookie will have a greater impact on his team in September and October than Ventura.
In this week's Pipeline Perspective, Jonathan Mayo named Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong as the most important rookie for the stretch drive. But St. Louis enters play on Wednesday with a 4 1/2-game lead in the National League Central, and he bats at the bottom of the club's lineup.
By contrast, Ventura is much more important to the Royals' chances. He takes the ball every fifth day for a team that's tied with the Tigers in the American League Central and also tied for the AL's second Wild Card spot. Kansas City likely won't make the playoffs and likely won't advance if and when it gets there unless Ventura performs well.
Fortunately for the Royals, Ventura has done just that, going 12-9 with a 3.25 ERa with 134 strikeouts in 158 innings and leading the club in quality-start percentage (19 of 26, 73 percent). Though he's just 6 feet and 180 pounds and has surpassed his previous career high for innings, he shows no signs of wearing down. Ventura has pitched just as well after the All-Star break as he did before -- albeit with a slight slippage in control -- and is working on a streak of eight straight quality starts, seven of which Kansas City has won.
In his first Major League start last September, Ventura unleashed a 102.8 mph fastball -- the fastest pitch thrown by any big league starter in 2013. He has continued to deliver heat throughout this season, leading MLB in average fastball velocity at 96.9 mph (according to Fangraphs). Ventura also has the hardest cutter (94.4 mph) and curveball (82.8 mph), for what it's worth, and the seventh-hardest changeup (87.4 mph).
Ventura relies heavily on his fastball for obvious reasons, and because hitters have to gear up to hit it, that leaves them vulnerable to his fading changeup. His 12-to-6 curveball has gotten a lot better since he signed, though it ranks as his third-best pitch. If Ventura can get more consistent with his curve, he could become an All-Star.
Ventura's potential matters less than his present, however. Danny Duffy left his last start on Sunday with a shoulder problem after throwing just one pitch and Jeremy Guthrie has endured an up-and-down season that has been more down than up recently. That makes Ventura even more crucial to the Royals' cause.
To end its postseason drought, Kansas City needs Ventura to be at his best in his final four starts of the season. If its hopes come down to the final day of the season, Sept. 28 against the White Sox, he's scheduled to take the mound.
And should the Royals reach the playoffs, Ventura will take on added importance. He's the lone pitcher in their rotation with shutdown stuff, the ability to simply overpower the opposition. Successful postseason teams tend to have a guy like that at their disposal.
Ventura may have been far from a can't-miss prospect when Kansas City signed him six years ago, but thanks to one of the quickest arms around, he's now throwing the ball past plenty of big leaguers. As a result, the Royals are relevant in September for the first time in years. Whether they'll remain relevant in October depends largely on him as well.