We have a number of great ERA estimators on this site. FIP, xFIP, SIERA: choose your favorite, because they all have a place in attempting to better describe outcomes closer to a pitcher’s true talent over a given timeframe. Maybe you’re lazy, or maybe you’re different, but it can also be nice to have a dead simple one — which is where K-BB% comes in. If a pitcher is striking guys out and limiting walks, that’s a fundamentally positive thing, and it turns out K-BB% is actually the best in-season predictor of future performance out of all the ERA estimators on the site (though it’s still not a great predictor, to be honest). Unless a pitcher possesses a signature batted-ball profile, K-BB% represents a nice, handy way of feeling a little better about a guy if his ERA hasn’t been quite up to expectations. Or, you know, feeling worse about a guy whose ERA has been lower than what his peripherals seem to say it should be.
Which brings us to the current K-BB% leaderboard. A casual perusal yields these top-five worst K-BB% rates among qualified starters in the major leagues:
Negative? Negative! These guys all have pretty middling strikeout rates, and the top few have some serious control problems. Just in case you were wondering, no one ran a negative K-BB% among qualified starters last season. It makes sense, given that it’s a hard thing to do while still being allowed to pitch a lot of meaningful innings in majo- league baseball games. But Ventura is currently doing it, and his ERA is “just” 4.62! And yet this next table, of Ventura’s current FIP and xFIP ranks among qualified starters, seems relevant, given his current standing with strikeouts and walks:
Now we have validation that Ventura is outperforming his fielding-independent pitching numbers, and by a wide margin. That’s not terribly surprising, given the fact he’s in the top 15 for lowest BABIP against. By these estimators, Ventura has been one of the worst pitchers in baseball. The key now is to find out why all of his numbers — especially his fielding-independent ones — have been so poor. And that search, I believe, should start with this — a chart of his velocity from the start of his full big league season in 2014 up until his most recent start (from Baseball Heat Maps):
Obviously we’re dealing with some velocity loss. That’s troubling mostly because Ventura is velocity. He’s know for the big fastball. The decline is nothing crazy, to be fair, and Ventura was near this low at times during last season. Another positive is that he’s still averaging around 95 mph, so he probably has a little more margin for error velocity-wise than other pitchers who don’t throw as hard. Plenty of pitchers show a little less zip during April, too, and it was cold in the Midwest last month. We could continue down this path of weather, early season factors, etc. for a while, so let’s just take the decline for what it is — a concern, and part of a larger picture.
The big thing that sticks out with Ventura this year is obviously the walk rate. We can see it right there in our K-BB% table: 16.6%! Ventura has never been known for his control: he owns a career walk rate of 9.4%, a little over a point above 2016’s league average for starters. But this year, it’s been something else entirely. He hasn’t walked fewer than two batters in any start this season, and he’s walked 14 in his last three games. There’s fringy control, and then there’s what Ventura has done this season. Big changes in rates of pitches in the strike zone (Zone%) is another injury indicator, so it’s not exactly a confidence builder to see a velocity decline coupled with such a drastic breakdown in control.
The changes in Zone rate got me wondering: where is Ventura missing, and with what? Let’s bring in a few heat maps, courtesy of Baseball Savant. First, let’s take a look at the general location of his fastballs between this season and last season:
Ventura has always been a high-fastball guy, mostly because he came up with an 80-grade heater: he’s had the velocity to challenge hitters, and he used to get away with it. This year, his average fastball has been more middle-in, it’s been slower, and it’s gotten absolutely pounded. Hitters are slugging .609 off of Ventura’s fastballs this season; in 2014, that mark was .354. Take anyone’s main weapons away and he’ll have issues, and Ventura with a more hittable, poorly-located fastball is trouble. By the numbers, he’s also showing less confidence in his fastball this season, throwing a career-high rate of offspeed pitches. That’s helping to drive his downturn in strikeout rate, as he isn’t matching his previously established swinging-strike rates on his (mainly four-seam) fastball.
Now let’s just look at the location of his pitches in three-ball counts between last year and this year, regardless of pitch type. This is where Ventura has had to throw strikes:
The majority of these pitches are fastballs, and we can see a similar pattern to the one above: Ventura’s pitches are lower in the zone this season, with many of them actually low and out of the zone in three-ball counts. Command of pitches usually goes the way of control of pitches, and it’s fair to say Ventura has had trouble both with generally throwing strikes and locating those strikes in particular parts of the zone.
The final piece to the story is Ventura’s release point, which has steadily dropped over time. Take a look at his average horizontal release point by month since the start of 2014, courtesy of Brooks Baseball:
Again, there’s nothing horribly worrying here, but there has been a slow erosion of his release point toward the third-base side. We can never truly know about possible injuries — in lieu of any concrete information from players or teams (which has been lacking for Ventura), all we can do is try to put pieces of a puzzle together. More and more, however, Ventura seems to be showing troublesome changes in a few important indicators (velocity decline, Zone% dip, and release point changes), and it’s not like we have great results to make us feel better. Ventura might be totally fine. He might be dealing with some sort of injury or fatigue. The important point is that there isn’t any grounds to feel good about what we’re seeing.
Perhaps this will be another blip in the young right-hander’s career: he’ll find his release point again, start locating better, and the velocity will increase along with the warming season. We can imagine a bunch of different reasons why he’s performed poorly, and Ventura hasn’t shown himself to be immune from setbacks and career fluctuations. But there are also the worrying signs of a young pitcher who relies mainly on the speed of his fastball; in that way, we should hope there’s some mechanical issue that can be worked out. Otherwise, like Ventura, we’re all simply fighting against the inexorable march of time, careening headlong toward a future with diminishing tools and hopefully — just hopefully — a better mind with which to use them.
Owen Watson writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @ohwatson.