The Royals’ collective hearts skipped a beat earlier this week when their promising, young flame-thrower exited the Royals’ Memorial Day game clutching his elbow. His fastball velocity was down to 91 mph, which is about as red a flag as one can send up the flagpole, with a pitcher that regularly stays in the upper-90s.
Yordano Ventura burst onto the scene this spring, winning a spot in the rotation, to begin the regular season. He gave the radar gun a workout with his fastball, which spent time in the triple digits, and kept hitters honest with a hammer curveball in the upper-80s. The only question is whether a minor league BB:9 consistently above 3.00 would get him in trouble at the major league level. Some have questioned his mechanics; but it’s hard to find a pitcher at the major league level that hasn’t had their mechanics questioned. To compound the matter, those that question mechanics often aren’t qualified to be doing so. To their credit, the Royals keep an eye on mechanics, and have said that Ventura’s mechanics are sound.
After the game, the Royals were referring to the injury as ‘lateral elbow discomfort’, but assured fans and media that there was no damage to his Ulner Collateral Ligament (UCL). Nothing scares a pitcher more, right now, than UCL damage. The phrase elbow discomfort, mentioned by player and directed toward trainer, is just down-right terrifying. You can’t turn on Sports Center these days without seeing some discussion about a pitcher’s elbow. It’s one of the reasons that Dr. James Andrews has become a household name.
Why was the team so confident that one of their most promising players would return quickly to action? For starters, the location of the injury is not indicative of a UCL injury. Ventura’s discomfort is located on the lateral side of the arm, whereas the UCL is on the medial side. Pain, however, can be referred to different locations, and that alone is not enough to say with confidence that there is no UCL damage. But it’s a start. In the locker room, trainers likely performed a valgus stress test on his elbow, in which the arm is braced at the wrist, and pressure is applied to the elbow, pushing the arm inwards towards the body. If the elbow is more ‘loose’ than normal, it would be indicative of UCL damage. This apparently was not the case.
Without seeing the MRI, however, there still could have been small tears or fraying of the UCL present. Perhaps the message got altered between the training staff and the coaching staff, transforming it from ‘probably fine’ to ‘fine’. Then again, sometimes a coaching staff hears what they want to hear.
The next morning, the Royals announced that Ventura’s MRI came back clean, and he would only miss one start. While this is great news for Ventura, the Royals, and baseball fans, it seems to beg the question: why is the pitching staff not showing extreme caution with the young pitcher’s elbow? As we all know, the life of Ventura’s pitching arm correlates directly with the Royals’ long-term success.