Written by: Zach Hayes (@PineTarKeyboard)
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The Twins have a lot riding on Jose Berrios. Having missed out on Hyun-Jin Ryu earlier in this interminable offseason, they gave their big-fish money to Josh Donaldson, and subsequently filled out their staff with Homer Bailey, Rich Hill and a Michael Pineda redux. They can always make further moves during the season (in theory) but it’s not a stretch to say that a lot of success is dependent on Berrios pitching like an ace.
As much as their offense may mash, it’s unwise to bank on them setting home run records for a second straight season. And even if they do continue to emulate the 1927 Yankees, we’ve already seen the limitations of a team that enters October with Jake Odorizzi as their best starter.
I don’t think anybody questions that Berrios is capable of being the kind of playoff stopper every championship team needs. He’s got all the right ingredients, and for the first half of last season, he put them together perfectly. On June 27th, when Craig Edwards wrote about how Berrios’ improved changeup usage was giving him legitimate Cy Young-level upside, he wasn’t exaggerating. On June 28th, Berrios made his 17th start of the season. Let’s see how it played out from then on:
In the first half, he was a very good pitcher who appeared to get a little lucky. In the second half, he was an okay pitcher who got a little unlucky. Any way you have it, those are still two different pitchers having two different seasons. What gives?
It appears some of the improvements identified by Edwards took a step back as the season progressed. Here’s a short breakdown of how effective each of Berrios’ pitches was over those first and last 16 starts of the year:
Early in the season, Edwards noted, Berrios was being more aggressive in the zone with his changeup, especially to left-handed hitters, and it paid off: the pitch had a .225 wOBA on the day the article ran. It was a full 40 points off its expected stats, but a few skewed results aside, it looked like Berrios had finally turned the corner.
In the second half, however, he wasn’t able to repeat. We see he started throwing just about everything in the zone considerably less, particularly the curveball and changeup. While the change’s whiff rate rose (as did the curve’s), it was still a ball far more often than not, and a markedly less effective pitch. All those gains against opposite-handed hitters went right out the door: the changeup’s wOBA against lefties went from .243 through 16 starts to .339 through the final 16. That’s a major step backwards, to say the least.
It was a big enough step backwards it didn’t matter that he simultaneously fixed the curveball issue with pointed out by Edwards. As Edwards suggested, he threw it in the zone less often and saw a significant rebound in its whiff rate. However, hitters took advantage of the fact that he was working around the plate more, and his walk rate spiked by nearly 3%, back towards his career norms. Throw in some poorly clustered batted ball luck leading to a few lopsided blowouts and sketchy run prevention numbers, and we’re essentially back to square one with Jose: we know he’s got the guts to be the guy, but it’s all contingent on consistently doing it for more than 3 or 4 starts at a time.
So how’s Jose Berrios been spending his socially distant time recently? As of a couple weeks ago, he was working on his curveball and changeup! Berrios filled us in on what his developmental plans were in a FaceTime interview with ESPN’s Marly Rivera:
“Right now, I am focusing on throwing the changeup towards the glove side, which would be on the side outside the right-handed hitter,” Berrios explained on a FaceTime call with ESPN. “As it naturally runs for me, it would be on the arm side, from the middle towards the bottom. I want to improve it towards the glove side.
“I’m also working on a curveball, like if I’m facing a right-handed hitter, it goes over the hitter and falls for a strike. I know those are efficient pitches and I want to add them to my repertoire. The changeup comes out in a way that’s natural to me, so I want to work it elsewhere.”
I always enjoy listen to players talk about how they think strategically, especially when it’s a little counterintuitive. The little complexities of the game are fascinating. Like Edwards, Berrios clearly thinks the changeup has enough upside to spend a considerable amount of time tinkering with it. Its effectiveness and usage have both increased in 2 consecutive years, and if the first half of 2019 was any indication, the potential is there for a well-above average third offering. But I’ll talk about the changeup in a moment. The curveball is Berrios’ signature pitch, so let’s dive into that for a moment first.
I find it interesting that Berrios disagrees with Edwards’ assessment that he doesn’t need to throw the curveball in the zone to be effective. Partially, at least. He was right in that it was good enough to be highly effective without throwing in the zone much. The problem is that in the second half of 2019, that wasn’t enough. He took the curve’s zone rate back to his career norms, and while the whiff rate returned, the bottom-line results did not; after ranking 13th in baseball in run value added from 2017-18, it was still just an average pitch over his last 16 starts last season. Combine that with a suddenly ineffective changeup and a lot of unlucky batted balls from a fastball that was already getting hit around more than usual, and you get Berrios’ less-than-stellar second half.
The solution? More front-door breaking balls, according to Berrios. It appears what he wants to do is throw more strikes with the curveball without sacrificing swings-and-misses on benders below the zone. The changeup improvements are nice and the pitch pairs well with the darting arm-side run on his sinker, but the curve is his calling card, and it makes sense why he’d try to maximize his best weapon. To get an idea of what we’re talking about, take a look at where Berrios has thrown his curveball since the start of his first full season (h/t Baseball Savant):
That’s about what we’d expect from a righty with a good hook. Keep everything away from the middle and make the hitter go and get it.
All told, just about a quarter of his curves have been worked inner (to a right-hander) part of the plate, with only about half of those being in the zone, both roughly league-average rates. Berrios doesn’t have your mom and dad’s curveball, though. It’s one of the prettiest benders in the show, and the 17 inches of horizontal movement it averaged in 2019 placed it in the top 5% of all curves for the third straight season.
It’s a unique pitch; the only others with similar velocity with so much sweep and so little vertical movement belong to Corey Kluber and Ryan Pressly. Not bad company to be in! It also means that Berrios is much better suited than most to take advantage of hitters’ proclivity to lay off breaking balls on the inner third of the zone (or outer third, for opposite-handed hitters).
Hitters typically swing at curveballs in that inner third (Gameday zones 1, 4, and 7, for those keeping track) about half of the time. But Berrios’ extreme east-to-west movement means hitters are more likely to flinch than put a good swing on it, offering at just about 40% curves on the inner part of the plate. And early in the count, they’re even more passive. Swinging at just over a quarter of the time when it’s thrown in the first two pitches of an at-bat, Berrios is considerably above league average when it comes to freezing hitters with the curve.
By the numbers, that’s a LOT of free strikes for the taking, and potentially low-hanging fruit at that. It’s just dependent on his ability to consistently execute those pitches. When it works well, it’s a beauty. Here he is dropping in a first-pitch curveball to J.D. Martinez that might’ve wound up over the Green Monster if Martinez was inclined to be more aggressive.
That’s an effective pitch, even when he’s missing his spot. Backstop Mitch Garver wanted this one at the shoelaces, but it left the usually-stoic Jose Abreu stuttering in his cleats regardless of the fact Berrios missed his location.
Of course, it’s just as pretty when he does throw that pitch with a purpose, and hitters on either side of the plate seem to have little interest in attempting to do anything with it. Here, he steals a strike from Matt Chapman in a pitcher-friendly count.
If adding more of those to his arsenal keeps hitters off his fastballs, Berrios will probably be a better pitcher than what he was the back half of 2019.
So what about the changeup? If he can successfully diversify the way he uses that pitch as well, something like his first half 2.84 ERA/3.51 FIP wouldn’t be so outrageous, and Edwards’ prognostication may yet come into fruition. As we already covered, Berrios used the changeup more than ever in 2019, so let’s find out where he threw it (h/t Baseball Savant):
We see that Berrios more or less ignored the glove side with the changeup, largely because about 2/3 of them went to left-handed hitters. Front-door changeups to lefties are rarely a big part of a righty’s arsenal; the degree of difficulty is high and the margin for error is thin. That being the case, it sounds like his intention is to give himself another weapon against right-handers. The same-handed outside changeup is a difficult pitch to execute—glove-side changeups on the whole can be a sketchy proposition, as this mediocre former-D3 pitcher can attest to—but when it’s done right, it’s a challenge for the hitter to do much with it. Berrios only threw a few of them in 2019, but most of them looked like this:
Seems worth a try!
Similar to his efforts with the curveball, it sounds as if Berrios is trying to diversify his weaponry by finding different ways to attack hitters with the changeup. While Edwards was correct at the time in noting that being better against lefties propelled him to ace-level results, 2019 also marked the second consecutive year that righties managed to increase their bottom line against him. It’s been a slow but steady gradual improvement, as we can see here, with 2019 once again broken into two halves:
There are many more pages of microanalysis that could be done about what’s happened here, but those will have to wait for another time or writer. Regardless, we know that what was working for him in the past against righties has slowly been less and less effective, and his overall results finally caught up in the second half last year. Throwing not one, but two pitches in ways he hasn’t thrown them before might seem like an idiosyncratic step for someone who’s done pretty well with the stuff that got them there. Looking at where the various holes in his game came together last year lets us make a lot more sense of them.
Adjustments are always necessary, even for the best. Filthy as it is, Berrios’ arsenal is fairly simple. Fastball, sinker, curveball, changeup. Those are the only pitches he’s ever thrown in the big leagues. They’re pretty dang smart in the big leagues, and especially with the degree of advance scouting and analysis available, it’s incredibly difficult to be consistently successful by throwing the same two or three pitches in the same places for extended periods of time. His stuff is good, but it’s not that good. That curveball is one of the best in the bigs, but his fastball and other secondary pitches aren’t so dominant that he can do the same thing over and over without some attrition in effectiveness. In 2019, when his fastballs and change ran into the rough patches that all pitchers inevitably experience, it appears that hitters—and righties in particular—were well-adjusted enough that his curveball wasn’t enough to paper over his other deficiencies. So it was time to problem-solve.
Whether or not Berrios and the Twins would agree with my assessment is up for debate, but it’s clear that they’re looking to do something a little different in 2020, whenever the season should come to pass. If Berrios can grab some extra free strikes with the curveball, he’ll certainly benefit from working ahead in the count more. And if he can keep hitters honest with that outside changeup, it’ll be harder for them to sit on a fastball while watching the offspeed stuff go by. One or both of those things could go a long way towards giving us a Berrios that the Twins would be happy to throw in Game 1 of a playoff series. Whether he’ll be able to work this through to fruition and execute is, as always, yet unknown. But Berrios is fun enough to watch pitch as it is, and a Cy Young-caliber version of him for a full season is just as fun to dream on.
Follow P365 Staff Writer Zach Hayes on Twitter! @PineTarKeyboard
Follow us on Twitter! @Prospects365
Featured image courtesy of Jim Mone and the Associated Press