The top pitching prospect in the Twins organization is about to change, because it looks as if J.O. Berrios has graduated from prospect to big leaguer. If his first 3 starts in a Twins uniform this year are any indication, the young guy from Puerto Rico is here to stay.
Berrios has been mostly dazzling – but even when he’s not perfect he’s been effective against 3 good lineups – and he’s now erasing any bad memories from his 14 starts a year ago.
That version of Berrios posted an 8.02 ERA in 58 1/3 innings in Minnesota. This version of Berrios, which seems to be a closer replica of the one that posted dominant numbers in the minor leagues, is 3-0 and has a 1.66 ERA, plus 22 strikeouts and just 4 walks in 21 2/3 innings.
As Jeff Sullivan at FanGraphs points out, this is along the lines of what you were hoping to see last year if you’re a Twins fan.
There are any number of reasons this year has been kinder to Berrios. From my perspective, having covered his rise from the MLB Draft to the Major Leagues, here are 3 things that I think are key to Berrios’ success so far this year:
Berrios has found himself in favorable counts more frequently this year than he did last year. The Twins preach a few important things to their pitchers. One is the importance of getting Strike 1. Once you’re ahead of a hitter 0-1, the rest of the plate appearance becomes easier. You don’t have to take chances in the strike zone, you get to try to force a protective hitter to chase a pitch outside the strike zone. In short, things get more fun, especially if you have good stuff. (Throwing a strike in a 1-1 count is also critically important to the success of a pitcher, but we’ll just focus on that 0-0 pitch for this column.)
Berrios got the first strike only 55.2% percent of the time last year, and so he was often fighting back from behind in the count, when a hitter is better able to dictate what happens. Fall behind 1-0, and the hitter knows you’ve got to come back with a strike or risk falling behind 2-0. And if you happen to be struggling to throw your secondary offerings for strikes that day, the hitter can eliminate those pitches.
Once you’re there, good stuff can only get you so far. Give a big-league hitter a pretty good idea that a fastball is coming in the strike zone on the next pitch, and your odds of sneaking it by him just went down.
That’s where the good comes in for Berrios. This year he’s throwing more first-pitch strikes. He’s up to 65.8% through his first three starts. The MLB leader, John Lackey, gets a first-pitch strike 70.7% of the time. Of course, there’s more to pitching than throwing a strike on the first pitch, but it’s a good place to start.
This one’s tricky. Last year, Berrios was in the strike zone on a mere 38% of his pitches, according to FanGraphs.com. Among qualified starters last season, that would have ranked next-to-last; only James Shields was worse at throwing pitches in the strike zone.
This season through 3 starts, Berrios is working in the zone almost 49% of the time, a significant jump across his 305 pitches this year. On average, that would be 11 more pitches in the strike zone per start this year.
GM Thad Levine said in a recent radio interview on 1500ESPN that a group of people with a hand in developing pitching put together a plan for Berrios to work on this year.
“A huge part of his success in the minor leagues was the ability to miss bats,” Levine explained, “but when you evaluated it a little bit further, we recognized it was from but it was in large regard throwing pitches outside the strike zone.
“And when he came up the big leagues he wasn’t able to get away with those types of things. He was in a lot of hitters counts, and unfortunately big league hitters were taking advantage of that.”
“We really just impressed upon him the importance of throwing quality strikes. … [He has great stuff] and he just needed to use it more in the strike zone more often,” Levine said. “He embraced the challenge, went down to Triple-A and did just that.”
Now, Berrios is back in the big leagues and it appears to be working.
It’s no sure thing that he’ll keep it up the rest of the way, especially as teams adjust to this new strike-throwing machine. I wouldn’t be surprised to see teams try to jump on Berrios early in the count in future starts, so that they don’t have to face the prospect of defending the plate with 2 strikes and an array of possibilities – running 2-seam fastball, big breaking ball, high fastball, changeup – that could be heading their way.
Like first-strike percentage, being in the zone is not a guaranteed recipe for success. But it’s a good place to start.
Just as an example, in Kyle Gibson’s fifth start this year, he was in the zone more than any other of his MLB outings this season. And he was punished with 4 earned runs in 4 innings pitched, and was one start away from being optioned to the minor leagues. The Twins are asking Gibson to throw more strikes and stay in the strike zone. But there’s a delicate balance, because if your stuff isn’t great and you’re filling up the strike zone, the other team can have a hit parade.
I think a nonzero percentage of Berrios’ struggles last year can be pinned on the fact that he’d never struggled that badly in the minors. As a young guy who’s been dominant, it can be jarring to not get away with the same stuff that made you successful every step of the way to that point.
From my experience, Berrios is an incredibly hard worker, and he’s also improbably humble. It seemed like a matter of time before he broke out in a big way in the Majors. He certainly has the stuff.
But a part of that equation is confidence, I believe, and if he didn’t have that when he first returned to the Majors the first time this year, he sure has it now.
The lineups he’s faced — the Rockies, Indians and Orioles – are three of the better lineups in all of baseball right now.
As measured by Weighted On-Base Average, the Rockies are 8th in the Majors, the Indians 16th and the Orioles 17th.
Do you prefer to measure a team by runs scored? The Rockies are 2nd, the Indians are 22nd and the Orioles are 16th. Colorado and Baltimore are top-10 in home runs.
Berrios will give up some home runs, but he’s also going to get his share of swings and misses, strikeouts, and if he continues at this current pace, standing ovations.
That’s the main reason any of this matters. His fastball has gotten swings and misses, and he can run it into the mid-to-upper 90’s. His 2-seamer has great movement at times, and he’ll be able to use that as a deceptive pitch, either as a front-door pitch to lefties or running out of the strike zone against them. He can also use it on the backdoor for righties, or run it in on them when he’s ahead in the count.
His curve ball has been a great pitch for him through three starts, and it would seem to me that a good fastball and getting ahead in the count have allowed that pitch to play up.
Jose Berrios, nasty Strikeout of Trumbo (92mph Sinker sandwiched between 2 slices of filthy Curveballs). pic.twitter.com/bpwCKjbMSl
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) May 24, 2017
Lastly, he’s doing this without a ton of help from his changeup, which I think is a good pitch for him. He showed a willingness to use it last year, even when he was behind in the count, which shows confidence that he can throw it for a strike when he needs to. Right now, he’s using it about 8% of the time. That might be an important piece to the puzzle if the league adjusts to the Twins’ young phenom at some point this summer.