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Twins Fans, It’s OK to Freak Out Over José Berrios

No, he couldn’t keep his ERA below eight in 2016. And yes, his meager four strikeouts were all too similar to Minnesota’s recent K-less past. But in his first start of 2017, against the defending American League champs, Berrios put together a master class.

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

What José Berrios did Saturday ought to get Minnesotans up to “just won a meat raffle” levels of happiness.

If the Twins have an organizational reputation for anything other than awesome movie montages, it’s for not being able to strike hitters out. As a team, the Twins were 28th in baseball in K/9 ratio in 2016, which was the first time since 2010 they didn’t end up dead last. The last time the Twins had even a league-average K/9 ratio was 2007, when a staff led by Johan Santana and a 23-year-old Matt Garza struck out 6.9 batters per nine innings, good for ninth in baseball.

In recent years the Twins have tried to develop pitchers who throw a little harder and strike more guys out, with little success. A pair of hard-throwing righties, 2013 first-rounder Kohl Stewart and 2014 second-rounder Nick Burdi, have had trouble staying healthy, while 2015 first-rounder Tyler Jay, a reliever out of the University of Illinois whom the Twins intended to use as a starter, is back in the bullpen this season.

Berrios allowed one run and only four base runners in 7.2 innings against Cleveland in his first start of 2017, and in so doing struck out only four — well below the league-average rate of 8.2 K/9. But the way he put that performance together should give Twins fans hope, because if this version of Berrios is for real, he’d be Minnesota’s most exciting new homegrown starter in a decade.

Despite having thrown only 66 big-league innings, Berrios is a familiar name in Minnesota because he’s popped up in prospect circles for so long, and while the Twins were routinely losing 95 games a year, fans were eager to look toward the future. Berrios was the no. 32 overall pick in the 2011 draft out of Papa Juan XXIII High School in Puerto Rico, and the following spring made two appearances for Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic at age 18. Over the next three seasons, he made the MLB.com and Baseball Prospectus global top 100 lists three times each, including in 2014, when he buzzed from high-A to Triple-A in his age-20 season.

The 6-foot, 185-pound Berrios made his big league debut in late April of last year, and I really wish we had a stronger version of “lit up” that we could use for guys who more than double their BB/9 ratio from Triple-A to the big leagues and allow an 8.02 ERA in their first 14 starts. Over that stretch, Berrios got through six innings once, and only three times — in a start of any length — did he allow fewer than three earned runs. Berrios returned to Triple-A from late May to the end of July, and in 13 starts he posted a 2.71 ERA and held opposing batters to a .201/.266/.330 line, but once he came back to the majors it was the same old story: a 7.27 ERA and 23 walks in 43.1 innings over his last 10 starts.

It’d ordinarily be unwise to flip out over one start — especially given that short track record of struggling in the majors — but Berrios hadn’t even come close to being that good in any previous major league start. Saturday was his longest career start by both pitches and innings, and a career low in hits allowed. Perhaps most encouraging for a pitcher who’d been undone by walks in the past, Berrios worked ahead of hitters all afternoon.

Against Cleveland, Berrios mixed together four pitches: a four-seam fastball, a two-seamer or sinker, a change, and a curve. Here’s his release point on all four pitches:

And here’s how they moved once they left his hand: hard sweeping motion in to lefties with the curve, all the other pitches running in to right-handed hitters.

Note the two-seamer on the graph, and how far to Berrios’s arm side it moves. Here’s one that caught Yan Gomes looking in the third inning. Berrios gets more than 9 inches of arm-side run on that pitch as he backdoors it to righties. It looks like a Wiffle ball. Not only is that pitch incredibly hard for a hitter to square up — if he gets wood on it at all — it comes in so hard and has so much late break that Berrios can either draw it back over the outside corner to righties, as he did to Gomes, or make it look like it’s coming in at a left-handed hitter’s elbow and spin it back over the inside corner, as he did to Michael Brantley later the same inning.

On Saturday Berrios got seven whiffs in 104 pitches, which isn’t itself notable — Chris Sale hasn’t had fewer than 14 swinging strikes in any start this year — and Berrios also got 17 called strikes, including two for strike three, and five pop-ups, which are the next-best thing to a strikeout for a pitcher. The strikeouts of Gomes and Brantley in particular remind me of the better days of another formerly disappointing Twin, Vance Worley.

The reason the Twins traded for Worley in December 2012 is the success he had with a similarly tricky two-seamer that, when he was locating it, was a near-automatic called strike. (See the strikeout of Mike Morse at 0:23 in the video above.) Worley posted a 109 ERA+ in 264.2 innings from 2011 to 2012, with a 7.7 K/9 ratio (league average was 7.1 in 2011 and 7.6 in 2012).

That might not sound like a name to give Twins fans confidence about Berrios’s future, but there are a few mitigating circumstances.

First, Worley, who posted an ERA of 7.21 in 10 starts with the Twins, pitched through shoulder inflammation in 2013. In parts of three big league seasons before arriving in Minnesota, Worley posted a 113 ERA+. In parts of three big league seasons since leaving, he’s posted a 116 ERA+.

Second, Berrios’s stuff is way better than Worley’s. For instance, his two-seamer is about four miles an hour harder than prime Worley’s with about 2.5 inches more of horizontal movement.

Finally, Berrios is pitching in a much better situation than the one he was in last year. Not only are the Twins in first place, which produces some ineffable benefit in terms of reducing pressure on Berrios to save the season, but his defense is better in two key regions.

First is behind the plate, where in 2016 Berrios was pitching frequently to Kurt Suzuki, whereas on Saturday he threw to Jason Castro. Last year, Suzuki was 65th out of 77 catchers in framing runs (minimum 1,000 chances). Castro was third. And the ability to steal the odd strike is important for a pitcher who relies on the called third strike. (In 2011, his best season, Worley was paired with Brian Schneider, an average framer, rather than the Phillies’ regular starter, Carlos Ruiz, who graded out as below-average.)

The other has to do with Berrios’s propensity to allow fly balls. That’s not a big deal — particularly if that propensity also leads to an abundance of pop-ups — because Target Field is a pitchers’ park and the Twins have a good outfield defense. Or more specifically, they have Byron Buxton.

Even though Buxton was up and down last year too, he didn’t play behind Berrios until September 5, 2016. If Berrios is going to allow a lot of balls in the air, it helps to have someone who can go get them.

It might smack of desperation to get worked up over one good start from a pitcher with an 8.02 career ERA entering the season, but armed with command and a defense that suits him, Berrios could make everyone forget his disastrous 2016.