Jose Berrios Throws Increasingly Rare Kind of Game

The trend in baseball is unmistakably one towards shorter starts. Pitchers compiled the fewest complete games in major-league history last year. That beat a record-low mark set the previous season, which itself had beaten a record-low established the year before that. Relievers are throwing a higher percentage of innings the ever before. Starters are, by definition, throwing fewer. The 200-inning starter is disappearing.

If his actions from this past weekend are any indication, Minnesota’s Jose Berrios seems not to care for this development. On Sunday, the young right-hander pitched a shutout, going the full nine innings while fanning six batters and conceding just three hits — and only of them prior to the ninth inning. (I’m not sure if I’m obligated to mention the Chance Sisco bunt against the shift and Brian Dozier’s odd reaction, but please consider this parenthetical as fulfillment of that obligation.) For a Twins team hoping to repeat the successes of last season, a lot hinges on the success of Berrios. He and the team got off to an awfully good start in their series win over the Baltimore Orioles.

Before getting to Berrios’s start, here is another reminder about how the game of baseball has changed over the years, particularly when it comes to bullpen use and expectations for starting pitchers. The graph below shows the number of shutouts by year since the advent of the designated hitter in 1973.

Just 25 years ago, there was pretty close to a shutout per day during the MLB regular season. A combination of expansion and the PED era greatly increased the use of relief pitchers. Coupled with increased offense, it was incredibly difficult for a starter to navigate a full game without letting the opposition score. In the early part of the last decade, as scoring decreased, we would still see a shutout every two or three days. As offense has again risen the last few years, however, shutouts have dropped — to about one per week last season.

While the shutout is an endangered event, Berrios’s shutout was even more unusual. Since 2004, there have been 795 shutouts, but only two happened within a team’s first three games, per Baseball-Reference’s Play Index. On April 1, 2013, Clayton Kershaw shut out the San Francisco Giants, and on April 3, 2011, Jaime Garcia did the same thing to the San Diego Padres. Berrios recorded only the third such shutout in the last 15 seasons. When a pitcher accomplishes something unique or has a very good game, my gut tells me to compare certain qualities of his performance in that game to those from previous seasons — to seeing what, if anything, has changed.

First, I checked pitch velocity and usage, per Brooks Baseball:

Jose Berrios Velocity and Usage in Shutout v 2017
Pitch Type 2017 Usage April 1 Usage 2017 Velo (mph) April 1 Velo (mph)
Four-Seam 35.0% 33.6% 94.0 93.8
Sinker 26.1% 26.2% 93.6 93.2 MPH
Change 8.5% 11.2% 83.9 84.9
Curve 30.4% 29.0% 81.7 81.9
SOURCE: Brooks Baseball

With the exception of a slightly harder changeup, there’s nothing to see here, and even the changeup difference is minimal given the small number of pitches. So, there’s little difference in pitch mix or velocity.

Here’s the movement on the pitches.

Jose Berrios Movement in Shutout v 2017
HMov in 2017 HMov on April1 VMov in 2017 VMov April 1
Four-Seam -5.7 -7.0 9.1 9.6
Sinker -9.6 -10.8 5.9 6.7
Change -8.6 -9.4 3.6 3.9
Curve 8.2 8.8 -2.2 -0.8
SOURCE: Brooks Baseball

Again, nothing to see.

I also looked at his whiff rates and nothing stood out. Berrios struck out 20% of the hitters he facced in his shutout, which is no different than his 22% K rate last season. He only walked one batter in nine innings, which is an excellent development, but his first-strike percentage in the shutout (61.3%) wasn’t much different from what he produced last year (59.1%).

I wondered if perhaps he received a favorable strike zone. He did not, as the chart below indicates.

Berrios benefited from a few borderline strikes on the outside corner to lefties, but there were also a few on the inside corner he did not receive. The right-handed plot was similarly unremarkable. My conclusion is not that Berrios made some change in his repertoire, added velocity, or gained better command over the offseason. Instead, the result is simultaneously less and more exciting: Jose Berrios was a good pitcher last season, and he appears to have carried that success into this one.

Last year, Jose Berrios started just 25 games and pitched 145.2 innings, which means that if you examine our leaderboards under qualified pitchers, you won’t find his name. If, however, one reduces the minimum innings to 140 and then looks at FIP- to adjust for league and park, Berrios’s mark of 86 appears 11th among 43 American League pitchers, sandwiched in between Justin Verlander and Dallas Keuchel. It’s not a season that came out of nowhere. Eno Sarris wrote about him favorably last March.

When you factos in Berrios’s age — he’s turning 24 years old in May — his season is even more impressive. This is the list of pitchers from the last decade who bettered Berrios in both FIP- and ERA- (87) while pitching at least 140 innings in an age-23 season or younger: Chad Billingsley, Madison Bumgarner, John Danks, Jose Fernandez, Tommy Hanson, Felix Hernandez, Clayton Kershaw, Mat Latos, Carlos Martinez, Chris Sale, Aaron Sanchez, Luis Severino, Stephen Strasburg, and Noah Syndergaard. It’s an impressive list. Jose Berrios was a very good pitcher last year — and not only that, but Paul Swydan noted his ability to pitch deep into games on his Ten Players I’m Excited to Watch in 2018 post last November.

Jose Berrios had a frightening MLB debut in 2016, and we should never speak of it again. Fortunately, he showed this past season that he’s capable of big-league success. He only allowed five or more earned runs four times in 2017; on the other side of the spectrum, he allowed one or fewer runs seven times. In five of those seven latter outings, he worked at least seven innings. In fact, he was just one of 20 pitchers to work at least 7.2 IP in four or more games last season. As we push closer to reliever takeover, Berrios looks to be a throwback.

Some of the credit for working deep in games might go to Berrios’s manager, Paul Molitor, who seems to have a longer leash than other managers. Ervin Santana’s MLB-leading five complete games last year would seem to be proof of that. On Sunday, Berrios deserved most of the credit, though: he averaged under 12 pitches per inning, ensuring he wouldn’t have a high pitch count and that he wasn’t pitching much under duress. We shouldn’t expect a shutout every time out from Berrios, but what he did on Sunday isn’t that out of the ordinary. Berrios is a good pitcher capable of pitching deep into games. He might not fit the definition of ace that includes the top-10 or so pitchers in baseball, but he looks to be in that next tier capable of heading a solid rotation. If you haven’t taken notice of Berrios, it’s time to do so.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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6 years ago

“He and the team got off to an awfully good start in their sweep of the Baltimore Orioles.”

I wish we swept them, but no. Lost the opener.

6 years ago
Reply to  TwinkiePower

Keep the faith TwinkiePower.
Fan since 1961.
Santana,and Polanco due to return after AS break.
Plenty of young talent,great fans,should be another wonderful year.