On the eve of the eve of his first opening day start, the Royals signed sophomore right-handed starting pitcher Yordano Ventura to a 5-year extension worth $23 million. The deal locks up the staff ace through his pre-arbitration and arbitration years and also gives the Royals control of his first two seasons of free agency, with club options worth up to $16 million with escalators. Ventura's contract also marks the team's only player under team control beyond 2018.
Ventura’s stuff is absolutely off the page. He regularly mixes four pitches, relying most heavily on his plus-plus 98.2 mph fourseam heater, the fastest among starting pitchers in 2014. He used his sinker second most often, and it was nearly as quick, averaging 97.7 mph. He also worked off-speed with an 88 mph change and an 83.7 mph 12-6 curve which would bury in as a put away pitch. Oh, and his delivery was compared to Pedro Martinez during postseason television coverage. Is he any good?
Despite dominating stuff, his 20.3 K% was just above league average while his 8.8 BB% tied him for 11th worst among starting pitchers. Ventura’s approach relied heavily on swings and misses at pitches outside the zone. As you can see below, last season he got whiffs working his fastball high in and his off-speed pitches low, particularly his curveball which he absolutely buried and rarely threw for a strike.
Overall, Ventura was average among qualified starters last season. His 3.60 FIP ranked 42nd of 88 qualified starting pitchers (fun fact: James Shields was 41st with a 3.59 FIP) while his 2.4 WAR ranked 43rd. However, Ventura was one of only 5 starting pitchers under 24 who qualified for the ERA title. Julio Teheran (3.5 fWAR) was the only one to significantly outperform Ventura, who performed similarly to Alex Wood (2.7 fWAR) and Drew Hutchison (2.3 fWAR) despite posting a higher BB% and lower K%.
Of course, no analysis of a pitcher's contract would be complete without addressing the elephant in the room, injury risk. Ventura stands 6’0" and weighs only 180 lbs. He also took a leap forward in innings last season, pitching 183 during the regular season and 25.1 more in the postseason after throwing only 150 in 2013 and 109.1 in 2012. Paired with his velocity, alarm bells begin to sound if you're looking for someone putting strain on his elbow.
These fears seemed to turn to reality last May when Ventura left a start against the Astros with elbow soreness. Fortunately, he hadn’t damaged his UCL, rather he experienced valgus extension overload, which was covered on this very site (brilliant article, you should read it). Ventura returned to the rotation quickly and remained healthy until the ALCS when he exited his start after 5.2 IP with shoulder tightness. Once again, he was not gone long, pitching 12.1 strong -- and at times emotional -- innings in the World Series.
While Ventura may seem like the ideal candidate for a standing appointment with Dr. James Andrews following each start, this deal doesn't seem out of line with other recent extensions of starting pitchers with between 1 and 2 years of service time. Ventura basically got Jose Quintana money, with a nearly identical salary and contract structure. While they are two wildly different pitchers, you can imagine how Ventura's high ceiling and Quintana's consistency result in similar contract values. However, Teheran is probably the best comparable for Ventura on this short list, posting nearly identical innings, K%, ERA, and FIP the season before his extension. Teheran did, however, post a much lower 5.8% BB% and was a year younger. Could this have been the only reason Teheran got more guaranteed money and a higher average annual salary, or did the Royals also build in an additional injury rate discount?
Now if we just step back and look at the potential value of the signing, what does it look like? If we take an ultra-conservative cost per win above replacement of $5 million, Ventura would need to accumulate 4.6 WAR for the Royals to "break even" on the deal in the context of free agency. However, as Ventura has two pre-arbitration years left and three arbitration seasons, it's really more about trading a little guaranteed money to protect against a breakout. If he's a 2-3 win pitcher for the life of the deal, he probably makes $23 million in arbitration. If he's any better, this is a bargain with some cheap free agent years. If he's any worse, the team isn't on the hook for a huge sum of money. This seems like a fair wager by Dayton Moore, as Ventura is projected for 2.5 fWAR in 2015 and still has ample room to grow should he find a way to reduce his walk rate.
However, Martin Perez is the most recent cautionary tale. Stories like his are why pitchers like Ventura weighed their promise against the risks that go along with throwing the ball 100 mph.
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Matt Jackson is a contributor to Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacksontaigu.