Do the Twins Already Have a Budding Ace?

Though it started with a strikeout and a ground out, the World Baseball Classic appearance by Jose Berrios Wednesday didn’t end well. He allowed a single to the scuffling Nolan Arenado, then hit Eric Hosmer and walked Andrew McCutchen before he was replaced. In essence, the outing encapsulated the ups and downs of Jose Berrios as a pitcher: tantalizing stuff, near-fatal flaws. If you focus on the former, though, maybe the latter is just an adjustment away from being a faded memory.

Jose Berrios has stuff, man. Have you seen his curve? It’s a nice one, with velocity and bend. Take a gander.

His changeup is actually pretty decent, too, giving him that one-two punch of secondaries that’s rare in baseball. If you express his movement and velocities on the two pitches as percentiles among qualified pitches, they look like a strong pair.

Jose Berrios’ Curve & Change, In Context
Pitch X-Mov Y-Mov Velo Drop & Velo
Change 87th 73rd 66th 90th
Curve 96th 18th 84th 45th
Velo and movement numbers for changeup defined off of the fastball.

Something pops out here: as you can see, Berrios’s curve is gets more sideways than vertical break. Research suggests, meanwhile, that drop and velocity are the most important aspects of a curve for whiffs. Maybe his curve isn’t as good as it looks, in other words. It does get below-average whiffs right now. Maybe he should be throwing his changeup more.

Before we say anything definitive like that about his curve, let’s consider the best comps for a sideways curve with that sort of velocity. Corey Kluber’s is the curve thrown by a starter that’s the most like the one thrown by Berrios. Kluber’s sideways bend is unique, but Berrios is close. The second- and third-closest curves by starters are those thrown by Sonny Gray and Gerrit Cole. All of them, save Berrios, have plus whiff rates on their curves.

Jose Berrios’ Curve Comps
Pitcher Velo Thrown swSTR% GB% VeloZ DropZ HoriZ
Corey Kluber 84.2 613 27% 34% 1.7 -2.0 2.1
Jose Berrios 81.7 257 9% 16% 0.9 -1.0 1.8
Gerrit Cole 81.4 111 13% 38% 0.8 -0.1 1.7
Sonny Gray 81.2 304 13% 33% 0.8 0.1 2.2
VeloZ, DropZ, HoriZ = z-scores for velocity, drop, and absolute value of horizontal movement, among curves thrown 100+ times last year. n=312

With the research on changeups suggesting that Berrios has what he needs — his changeup comps include Kyle Gibson, Tanner Roark, and Jeff Samardzija, and you can take a look at it below — it looks like you can give Berrios two pitches that have compelling movement and velocity. If you look for starting pitchers that have both a curve and a change that rank in the top 33% in terms of velocity (or velocity gap), you find a compelling group of pitchers: Kyle Gibson, Danny Salazar, Carlos Martinez, Danny Duffy, and Yordano Ventura (rest in peace).

We obviously turn to the fastballs to figure out why he hasn’t been what we thought he would be, at least not yet.

Velocity on the fastball is not the problem. Berrios is in the 64th percentile for four-seam velocity, and 77th percentile for two-seam velocity. Though his movement is exactly average, and his spin as well, the velocity still makes the case for an above-average major-league fastball.

Okay, so the stuff itself isn’t problem — and maybe we already knew. How about command, though? Fastball command was something his even his general manager cited as a problem when people inquired about the pitcher in the past. He was 47th worst in Called Strikes Above Average among 328 pitchers who threw 50 innings last year. He ended up in a lot of long counts this past Wednesday for similar reasons.

Look at his heat charts for four-seam (left) and two-seam (right) against righties, though, and it’s not so much about getting it in the zone as it is about avoiding the heart of the zone.

I mean, it’s nice that he can track three of the four corners with the four-seam against righties, but that bold red in the middle is no bueno.

As for lefties, the heat map suggests he should probably either stop throwing the four-seam to them altogether, or at least not throw it there — you know, that spot in the middle of the zone. Up and in? Fine. The two-seam chart suggests that he should either aim closer to the batter or maybe even move on the rubber, so that he’s standing closer to the first-base side. That might prevent his front-door two-seamers from leaking over the heart of the plate. There’s some suggestion that the inside part of the plate against lefties is opening up for strikes over the last few years, so that might be a good move.

That might help a little against lefties, but he’s still got that heart-of-the-zone problem against righties, and a bit of a rock-and-a-hard-place situation. If you’re talking about aiming, you could tell him to aim off the plate more and separate those three blobs so that the heart opens up, but then you’re asking him to throw more balls at a time when he’s having trouble with walks.

Maybe the solution is mechanical, as Doug Thorburn suggested last fall at a BaseballHQ seminar. Let’s look at Berrios last May, and then again in September to see if those changes are taking hold.

Last May:

Last September:

What these videos reveal is both (a) he’s already on the first base side, so he can’t go any further, silly writer, and (b) he’s changed his angle upon setup. This allows him to finish differently when it comes to foot fall. Check out how his body lines up at foot fall early (left) and late (right).

It’s hard to get the timing of these right without better technology, so I prefer not to focus on the upper body, which might just be in different moments in both pictures. Instead, just look at where his foot has fallen and how his legs are lined up. It looks more direct, more in line towards the plate.

I don’t know enough to tell Berrios what do do exactly, anyway. The point is that the pitcher has the makings of a plus curve, above-average change, and above-average fastball… if he can improve the command even to average. It’ll take a tweak like the one we see here to unlock the package. Maybe he’s already done it. Maybe it’s just a question of repeating that new delivery every time out instead of for two out of every four or five batters. At least he has the stuff to be good.

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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5 years ago

not expected to make the rotation to start the year.