The True Arrival of Jose Berrios

Let me set two arbitrary thresholds for you. One is going to be 25% strikeouts. Nice, clean, familiar dividing line. The other is going to be 20 innings pitched, as a starter. That’s not very many innings, but it’s probably enough to show whether you’re a strikeout starter or not.

Between 2008 and 2016, the Dodgers had 17 pitcher-seasons meet those criteria. That’s a lot! The Indians are in second, with 11. Then the Nationals had 10, and the Tigers had nine, and so on. The Orioles had one. The Rockies had one. The Twins had zero. They’re the only team with zero, and this just further demonstrates a point we’ve all understood seemingly forever: The Twins haven’t collected strikeout starters. It’s been a while since Francisco Liriano, and it’s been even longer since Johan Santana.

This is one of the reasons why there’s been so much hype around Jose Berrios. Berrios, last year, had a chance to make an impression. I suppose he did make an impression, but it wasn’t the one anyone wanted. The winter afforded the opportunity to hit the reset button. Berrios has gotten a chance of late to make a *new* impression, a better impression. This time, he’s succeeding. This time, Berrios is pitching like he ought to pitch. Don’t look now, but the Twins have a quality starter.

I don’t want to dwell too much on 2016’s miserable cup of coffee. Berrios struggled to the tune of an 8+ ERA, but it just never made very much sense. Look at this table, covering Berrios’ performance against advanced competition since 2015. Anything stand out to you?

Jose Berrios, 2015 – 2017
Year Level Pitches Strike% Contact% SwS% K-BB%
2015 Double-A 1367 65% 75% 12% 19%
2015 Triple-A 1141 65% 74% 13% 23%
2016 Triple-A 1548 67% 73% 12% 21%
2016 MLB 1115 58% 80% 9% 5%
2017 Triple-A 554 67% 78% 11% 20%
2017 MLB 305 66% 78% 11% 23%

With every opportunity but one, Berrios has thrown a whole bunch of strikes. With every opportunity but one, Berrios has generated plenty more strikeouts than walks. It should go without saying that there’s no challenge quite like working in the major leagues, especially for the first time, but you’d never expect that kind of drop-off. Numbers from the upper minors tend to be suggestive of numbers in the majors. Berrios came apart. Most players don’t. After a while, I have to imagine it all snowballed.

When you look at 2017 Berrios, it fits. In the majors, he’s started just three games, but the strikes are there, and the whiffs are there, and so Berrios looks like he’s supposed to look. This is a pitch that he throws. It’s a really good weapon.

Berrios didn’t recently develop that breaking ball or anything, but now he gets to use it more if he wants to, in more advantageous counts. You can probably see with your eyes that the breaking ball has all kinds of lateral movement. It doesn’t have so much in the way of drop, but by the major three pitch characteristics, that breaking ball is a near twin of Yu Darvish’s slider. It’s also similar to the curveball thrown by the late Jose Fernandez. It’s a pitch with the potential to terrorize opposing hitters, and when Berrios is actually in command of his game, he hardly needs a reliable changeup.

As is often the case, Berrios needs his fastball to be there if he wants to unlock the other stuff. With that in mind, here’s where his fastballs have gone, in each of the last two years:

Berrios this year has thrown more fastballs in the zone, including a few more higher up. There are signs here of increased aggressiveness, in an attempt to get ahead and stay ahead. Now, I don’t think Berrios was ever necessarily trying to nibble. But let’s watch him throw some fastballs in particular. Here’s a regular fastball from 2016:

Here’s a regular fastball from last week:

Before getting further into Berrios’ mechanics, I’d like to say that some part of his 2016 struggles was almost certainly psychological. It’s not easy to get beat up for the first time, and Berrios even now is only 22. There was also speculation during the summer that Berrios was tipping his pitches, and although that’s always a tough thing to prove or disprove, it’s there. It’s a theory. I don’t think Berrios erased his 2016 problems through ordinary mechanical tweaks alone.

But we might as well talk about what’s there. Berrios is a slightly different guy. One change is that Berrios now raises his hands above his head early in his delivery. I don’t know what effect that could have, but it might be part of an effort to have Berrios slow things down. Then, if you pay attention to Berrios’ feet, you can see a significant adjustment — Berrios has moved over on the rubber. Last year, he came set on the extreme first-base side. He’s moved to the third-base side. This can mean different things for different pitchers, but Berrios could be more comfortable coming from this angle. For a real explanation, you’d have to talk to him. I think the more important stuff comes later on, anyway.

Two screenshots:

Two screenshots from two different pitches:

The hand with the ball is the same. Berrios’ back leg is the same. But now Berrios is being more aggressive with his glove hand. And Berrios has also changed what he does with his front leg. Instead of his front foot going on a little tour around the mound, Berrios goes in more of a straight line. The knee stays bent at a tighter angle, and there isn’t so much energy trying to pull him off-line. It’s a little thing, but they usually are, with Berrios now having had his delivery a little bit simplified. He still looks like himself, yet a few quirks have been smoothed out.

It could be nothing. They could be innocent tweaks that have little to do with the real explanation. Maybe it comes down to Berrios now just pitching with confidence, and that’s all. There’s no substitute for a player getting to feel like he really belongs. No matter what, this time around, Jose Berrios is making sense. That 2016 stood out in large part because it was bizarre, in no way matching up with the established performance record. Perhaps for that reason alone, we all should’ve expected a rebound. Berrios has rebounded, giving the Twins a starting pitcher worth the effort of tuning in. For the first several weeks, the Twins were successful as more or less the Miguel Sano show. Now Sano’s got some help. The Twins have a strikeout starter. There are elements here to grip onto in what’s becoming a delightfully different season.

We hoped you liked reading The True Arrival of Jose Berrios by Jeff Sullivan!

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Ed_Escobars_Dirty_Sanchez
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Ed_Escobars_Dirty_Sanchez

Looks like he’s moved to the third-base side of the rubber too.

Jackie T.
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Jackie T.

Did you read the article you’re commenting on?

“Then, if you pay attention to Berrios’ feet, you can see a significant adjustment — Berrios has moved over on the rubber. Last year, he came set on the extreme first-base side. He’s moved to the third-base side.”