In all sports, development can be quite fickle. Ideally, players would progress linearly, similarly to a video game; a player’s ratings tend to go up by multiple points for every year of extra experience. Yet, if that was the case, where would the fun be in that?
When we see a player come up to the majors at a young age, we often can get overly excited in terms of projecting them moving forward. After all, young players always have the ability to get better, and a case can easily be made that a player fitting our description has yet to hit their peak. Oftentimes, though, this is a double-edged sword.
While it is great to see a player perform at a young age, there isn’t any guarantee that they are going to continue to get better. Now, you can have great assurance that they are going to be productive MLB players, but while it is easy to be infatuated with the next generation of impact players, the population of players who actually turn into stars is shorter than you’d hope for. Sometimes, players are who they are, and there is nothing wrong with that; becoming a productive MLB player is a great outcome for a young player.
This leads me to today’s case study, Jose Berrios. Even before he debuted in the MLB in 2016, Berrios was seen as a future ace. Yet, while he’s been a very valuable pitcher, it doesn’t appear that he has quite lived up to the lofty expectations bestowed upon him. Most importantly, though, he’s off to a very rough start to the season, leading many to wonder what’s next for the talented righty. It’s a complicated case, but let’s dig deep into the story of Berrios.
Jose Berrios: The Ascension To Future Ace Status
Between Carlos Correa, Byron Buxton, Kevin Gausman, Max Fried, Lucas Giolito, Corey Seager, Marcus Stroman, Mitch Haniger, Joey Gallo, Lance McCullers Jr., and Jesse Winker, the top-50 picks of the 2012 MLB draft produced a lot of impact talent, and Berrios was no exception.
Taken with the 32nd overall pick out of high school in Puerto Rico, Berrios was a polarizing prospect. On one end, he was seen as a polished pitching prospect who could sit in the mid-90s with his fastball with a power breaking ball. Yet, he also was a high-school pitching prospect, which oozes with risk, and an undersized one (6’0″, 205 pounds) at that. As time has gone on, being a projectable arm has rightfully carried much less weight, but at that time, it was a very important variable; he certainly wasn’t seen as a consensus first-round prospect.
Nevertheless, the Minnesota Twins installed their faith in him, and it quickly looked like a brilliant move. He vaulted his way into MLB Pipeline‘s top-100 prospect list after the 2013 season, and for good reason; as an 18-year-old, he pitched for Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic, while also making his professional debut as well. Yet, this was just the beginning. After shredding High-A hitters with a 22.1% K-BB ratio, Berrios reached Double-A as just a 20-year-old, leading to him being ranked as the 32nd-best prospect in all of baseball by MLB Pipeline.
Don’t worry- the ascension wasn’t done yet. In 2015, as a 21-year-old, Berrios posted a very impressive 20.5% K-BB ratio and pitched 166.1 innings. Remember, he was just 21-years-old. As expected, especially after he made his MLB debut in 2016, he reached his prospect peak, being ranked 19th overall by MLB Pipeline. Meanwhile, it was easy to be quite intrigued by his scouting report:
“Berrios has a terrific combination of stuff and feel, especially for someone his age. A terrific athlete, he has a live, quick arm that can consistently fire fastballs at the mid-90s level. Berrios’ curveball has improved so much that it’s almost an out pitch for him at this point. His changeup has the chance to be plus as well, which would give him three “60s” in his repertoire.””
“Considering Berrios was basically a shortstop until his senior year of high school, there is no question he has come much farther, and done so faster, than anyone anticipated. The Twins think he could be a future No. 2-type starter in the future, one with 20-win potential.”
Luckily, we have moved past the point where wins are used to evaluate pitchers, but between his performance, his age for the level, and his arsenal, there seemed to be little question that Berrios would eventually emerge as a frontline starter. With fine numbers (22.6% K, 7.8% BB, 145.2 innings pitched) in his first full season in 2017, he clearly appeared to be a breakout in the making, especially when he responded the next year with a very strong season- 25.3% K, 7.7% BB, 3.80 skill interactive ERA/SIERA, 192.1 innings).
When you accomplish that as a 24-year-old, expectations are going to soar in a major way. Just from a fantasy perspective, Berrios was a fourth-round pick and the 19th starting pitcher off the board in the NFBC Main Event, per rotoholic.com. Has he lived up to those expectations? Well, let’s just say it’s been a mixed bag.
Jose Berrios: Has He Met Expectations?
After a brief intermission, let’s continue on with the story of Berrios! Obviously, based on where he was taken in fantasy drafts, the overall buzz surrounding him was tremendous heading into the 2019 season, and why not? Prospect pedigree, a tremendous second season; it was all there.
To be fair, considering the volume of innings he was capable of eating and his overall youth, I’m surprised that Berrios was only the 19th-starting pitcher off the board. In hindsight, that actually would appear to be a completely reasonable average draft position (ADP), based on the floor provided by the sheer volume. With a 3.68 ERA in 200.1 innings, you may assume that he exceeded that valuation, though, based on Fangraphs 5×5 values, he actually checked in as the 26th-most valuable starting pitcher.
Why? Well, strikeouts are key. While Berrios’ surface-level ratio statistics were strong, his 23.2% strikeout rate was a bit underwhelming; we tend to draft the pitchers who we think will post the best ERA + innings combination, but there is a lot more to it than that. Plus, with his 4.29 SIERA about half a run higher than it was in 2018, it was actually a slight step back for him if anything. Still, his ADP in the NFBC Main Event (56th overall, 21st SP) was roughly the same as it was the season before, for a lot of the same reasons as the year prior. Even after a slightly underwhelming campaign during the short 2020 season, Berrios still found himself being drafted (SP20) in the exact same range heading into 2021.
This is the year the excitement starts to build up. With a career-best 26.1% strikeout rate, 20.4% K-BB ratio, and 3.65 SIERA over 192 innings, Berrios finally seemed to be taking another step forward, especially with performing even better (22.3% K-BB, 3.48 SIERA) after being traded from the Twins to the Blue Jays. Ironically, despite a lot breaking his way, he still only matched his ADP in terms of 5×5 value, which raises the question- has Berrios been valued too highly to begin with?
It’s not an easy answer. The floor he provides based on his volume has to be taken into consideration, after all. That being said, when your high-end outcome doesn’t result in you exceeding your ADP, that’s not the best of signs. So, why are we relatively in the same place we were in 2019? Let’s dig deeper into his arsenal.
The Mystery of Jose Berrios’ Arsenal
Berrios’ arsenal has consisted of the same four pitches throughout his career: a four-seam fastball, a sinker, a power curveball, and a changeup. Here are how those pitches have performed in terms of missing bats from season to season:
|Pitch | Whiff%||2016 ||2017 ||2018||2019||2020||2021|
By now, we have a good idea of what we’re getting from Berrios’ four-seam fastball and sinker, which are mainly meant to complement each other. Both pitches feature plus horizontal movement, which works in terms of inducing ground balls and getting called strikes, but isn’t necessarily ideal in terms of missing bats. In fact, given his underlying pitch data, I’m actually a little surprised he’s missed as many bats as he has with his fastball, though the performance of both pitches have been heavily tied to command.
The curveball, on the other hand, is a much greater mystery. It’s far from the vertical curveballs you’ll see from Tyler Glasnow and Clayton Kershaw. Rather, with over five inches above average in terms of horizontal movement, it truly is a sweeper:
Jose Berrios, Filthy 84 mph Curveball. 🤢 pic.twitter.com/8VIhlGkooc
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) April 24, 2018
This can help explain the volatility in Berrios’ curveball production. See, a horizontal curve is going to be much more tied to the command of the pitch, as well as potentially platoon risk. That’s where the changeup comes into play, yet it’s not a pitch with a standout movement profile, and hasn’t been able to miss bats at a high level.
So, in other words, Berrios has two hittable fastballs and a changeup that doesn’t miss a lot of bats. This places an immense amount of pressure on his curveball, which unfortunately hasn’t been a consistent offering for him. With a 105.9 stuff+ rating on Eno Sarris’ model (95 is average for a starting pitcher), there’s enough in the tank for him to miss bats. Yet, this is a profile mainly predicated on command, which increases the margin for error. The combination of above-average stuff and command give him the proper combination, but if one falters, he’s in trouble.
Jose Berrios’ 2022 Struggles
As the 20th starting pitcher off the board in the NFBC Main Event coming into this season, Berrios was seemingly valued the same as he’s been since the breakout 2018 season. Really, has there been one player that has had a more consistent draft position from year to year than him? It’s truly marvelous that, despite the ups and downs, he’s been valued consistently in the same way, albeit for different reasons.
Coming into the season, there were some reasons to be pessimistic about Berrios’ prospects. His swinging-strike rate of just 9.9% didn’t translate to the 26.1% strikeout rate, as made clear by his expected strikeout rate. At the same time, though, he was a sure thing to give you volume for a team projected to be arguably the best in the American League; the counting statistics gave him quite a floor, while there was hope that the Blue Jays could unlock more potency from his arsenal.
So far, though, that has certainly not been the case. In seven starts this season, the 28-year-old has a 5.82 ERA, while his strikeout rate has dipped to 15.3%. After a very rough start to the season in which he didn’t make it out of the first inning on Opening Day, he seemed fine with just a 2.66 ERA in his next four starts. The problem? That came with underwhelming peripherals (19% K), as well as a very high 90.6% left-on-base rate. The reality, unfortunately, was that this wasn’t sustainable, and that has shown with 11 earned runs over his last ten innings pitched.
It isn’t surprising that Berrios wasn’t able to maintain his strikeout rate from last year so far. What is more surprising, though, is that his underlying peripheral numbers, such as his 8.5% swinging-strike rate and 88.2% zone-contact rate allowed, have gotten worse. To be fair, some of this can be tied to him perhaps living in the zone (50.7%) TOO much, as his horizontal arsenal isn’t one that is going to miss bats in the zone; he’s still inducing chases outside the zone (31.1%), but he’s also pounding the zone on the first pitch (70.1% first-pitch strike) more than ever (61.8%), leading to more balls in play.
There are also other minors developments from Berrios that are worth monitoring:
- He’s throwing more fastballs (4-seam + sinker) on 0-0 counts more than ever
- Speaking of which, the fastballs are where his higher zone rate is coming from; his off-speed pitches have actually been thrown more outside the zone than usual.
- The lack of swings and misses in the zone is mainly from his off-speed pitches, though throwing more fastballs (his two worst whiff pitches) in the zone doesn’t help with that either
- Based on the data, he is seemingly having trouble finding his release point
- The command on his curveball, a horizontal pitch that needs to get to his glove side, simply hasn’t been there:
As shown above, Berrios’ curveball is being located on the front side of the plate for righties, allowing them to do more damage against it. To an extent, all of his pitches are suffering somewhat in terms of command, but the curveball is the pitch that he clearly is still working a feel for.
Ok, enough of what has plagued Berrios so far. Really, what matters most lies with what we expect from him moving forward. One look at Berrios’ player page on Baseball Savant would lead you to believe that he is going to continue to struggle. Fortunately, these expected statistics carry close to zero weight for pitchers, as studies have shown that they have very little control over the batted-ball quality they allow.
It may seem concerning that Berrios has allowed a 34.2% line-drive rate and 13.3% barrel rate. Really, what you should see, are two data points that stand out as clear candidates for positive regression. After all, the sample size is far too small to make conclusion about the quality of contact that Berrios has allowed:
The average qualified starting pitcher has faced around 120 to 130 batters so far this season.
That gives these reliability values. pic.twitter.com/sWEvvs91ad
— Cameron Grove (@Pitching_Bot) May 8, 2022
Unless you buy the idea that Berrios is suddenly a significantly worse pitcher, there is very little reason to expect a lot of his woes to continue. Based on Eno Sarris’ stuff+ model, the right-hander’s stuff+ (105.9) and pitching+ (103.1) are right in line with where they were last year. This early in the season, the only data point we can rely on is the quality of the arsenal of the pitcher, and there has been no changes in that regard for Berrios.
So, what does that mean? While your league mates may get caught up in the quality of contact he’s allowing, you can take advantage. Honestly, I’m not sure what has actually changed from before the season, but we are often way too quick to come up with new opinions on a player, and that has happened with Berrios. Take advantage of the panic, my friends.
There are few players in baseball that seem to be more conflicting in terms of evaluation than Jose Berrios. As a former top prospect who broke onto the scene with a tremendous year in 2018, there’s been hope that he would take the next step toward becoming a true ace. That hasn’t happened, and his performance has fluctuated slightly, but he’s generally been valued the same.
There was some expectation that Berrios would be the ace of the Blue Jays, and with his struggles, combined with the prowess of Kevin Gausman and Alek Manoah, that won’t be the case. Yet, has anything changed to suddenly not make him who he has consistently been? Nope. Just like with previous years, we’re looking at a high 3.00s ERA, not a lot of walks allowed, around a strikeout per inning, and a lot of volume with the ability to accumulate a lot of wins playing for a high-powered offense. That sounds like a pitcher who still holds a strong amount of value.
Even if Berrios hasn’t become a true ace, there should be zero disappointment in terms of his development. Simply being a three-to-four-win pitcher, and a top-30 pitcher in fantasy consistently should be seen as a very positive outcome. At 28-years-old with an arsenal that appears to be mainly maximized, it’s clear what to expect from Berrios at this point. That has been the case for several years now and doesn’t magically change after one month into the season.
Blue Jays fans, sit tight knowing that it’s only a matter of time before Berrios gets back on track. For fantasy, there are few buy-low candidates better than him, as with his arsenal completely the same, it’s only a matter of time before the results align. A case can be made that he’s been valued at his peak in the past, but, now, it is likely that he’ll be valued much closer to his floor.
Remember, we only are concerned about what a pitcher will do moving forward. In that lens, there would seem to be little reason to just trade Berrios away; he can be a very productive stabilizer for your rotation, which we could all use with the rash of pitcher injuries. Give up on Jose Berrios? No way, Jose!