Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Could Jose Be This Good?

The Minnesota Twins have played fewer games than anyone in Major League Baseball thus far in the 2018 season. With weather cancellations and scheduled off days, Paul Molitor's club has almost been off the field for as long as they've been on it. Of the 11 games they have played however, Jose Berrios has pitched in three of them. While it's too early to draw any substantial conclusions, if the immediate returns are any indication, the bar as to just how good the Puerto Rican can be has been raised.

Jose Berrios routinely found himself on top prospect lists in 2015 and 2016. He was considered a top 30 prospect across the league, and topped out at #17 on Baseball Prospectus' list prior to the 2016 season. The reports surrounding his ability on the farm were glowing, but the general consensus was that he profiled as a number three starter with the potential to reach #2 type heights. What wasn't expected was for Berrios to profile as an ace. Those expectations were shared by plenty around the game, but the one who likely disagreed with them, was none other than Jose himself.

A workout warrior, Berrios has made a habit of posting his beach sessions during the offseason. He's pushed cars and flipped tires, all while continuing to hone his game from the mound as well. The result thus far in 2018 has been nothing short of exceptional. Opposing hitters have been overmatched, and Berrios has kept his inefficiency bugaboo at bay as well. Keeping this up would put him on the trajectory entering into that ace conversation. So, how is he doing it?

Velocity isn't the key here for Jose, as he's sitting at 94.2 mph on his fastball. That's exactly in line with his 94.1 mph career average. He's also throwing his pitches in similar amounts in comparison to a season ago. Relying on his fastball just over one-third of the time, his curveball makes up nearly another third of his offerings. What is happening though, is that opposing batters are clearly having a tougher time with the pitches being sent their way.

In 2018, Berrios has upped his chase rate to 35.8% as opposed to just 30.5% a year ago. He's generating a career best 10.6% swinging strike rate, and the 78.6% contact rate is also a career mark. Owning the strike zone is also something Berrios seems to have focused on. His 66.7% first strike mark is nearly 10% better than his career norms, and it jumps over 6% from the 2017 output. When he's at his best, Berrios is filling up the zone and making quick work of opposing lineups. It's when he slogs through outings that there seems to be more opportunity for the opposing offense.

Right now, through a three game sample size, it's as simple as Berrios being locked in. His 24/1 K/BB is dazzling for a guy who's posted 5.4 BB/9 and 3.0 BB/9 in his first two big league seasons. If homer runs and free passes have been the straw to break his back across previous starts, he's simply eliminated those detractors for the time being.

Now, over the course of what will hopefully be a 200 inning season, expecting Berrios to carry the 24.0 K/BB ratio, or the 0.629 WHIP is a fool's errand. What's not out of the realm of possibility however, is that he repeats a consistent process that yields opportunity for current results. There isn't a pitch the Twins hurler throws that doesn't have significant movement. Making sure to appropriately line up even his fastballs so that they catch or entice the zone remains a must. The more Paul Molitor and Garvin Alston can get Berrios to work with high strike percentages, the better.

At the end of the day, 2018 was going to be an interesting season for Berrios after coming off a 3.89 ERA and 3.84 FIP during 2017. Even substantiating those numbers would make him a key cog for the Twins in the years to come. Pushing towards the dominating strikeout machine he's trended towards to open 2018 would absolutely push him into a conversation for the next tier.

Whether or not batters continue to make less contact, chase often, or whiff more against Berrios remains to be seen. Keeping the ball in the yard and forcing the batter to work will forever be the key areas of focus, and right now, it looks like he's dialed in.