How Did José Berrios Turn Things Around in 2017?
If we're being honest here, Jose Berrios' rookie season in 2016 was pretty much the Minnesota Twins' year in a nutshell: there were reasons to be optimistic at the start, but it didn't take long to realize that the actual experience wouldn't be fun.
While the former top prospect only spent 58.1 innings at the big league level, he made his contributions to a 103-loss club in the form of an 8.02 ERA. The cool thing about certain made-up narratives and comparisons is that they sometimes carry over into the following year, but in a totally different way.
We could say this happened for the Twins and Berrios in his sophomore campaign. In a likely hope-for-the-best-prepare-for-the-worst kind of year, Minnesota made history by qualifying for the postseason, and their young right-hander was again a key contributor (but in a good way), as he produced a 3.89 ERA in 145.2 frames.
Even though Berrios' turnaround shouldn't be completely shocking -- he wasn't one of baseball's best prospects across multiple outlets for nothing, ya know -- these two performances were night and day. How did he do it?
The Obvious Improvement
When taking a quick glance at Berrios' rookie year, it's not hard to see that a lack of control was one of his biggest problems. No pitcher wants to be the owner of a 12.5% walk rate, especially when it's accompanied by a 17.4% strikeout rate, .344 BABIP, and 59.7% strand rate (LOB%). Unfortunately for the Twins righty, that's exactly what he did in 2016.
As you might have anticipated, though, all those numbers went in the right direction in 2017. Berrios cut his walk rate down to a much more palatable 7.8% and cranked up his strikeout rate to 22.6% while his BABIP (.289) and strand rate (70.8%) both improved.
Improving his chase rate (27.6% in 2016 to 30.5% in 2017) was also a welcome addition, as was an increase in his first-strike rate, which went from 55.2% as a rookie to 59.1% this year (the league average this season was 60.3%).
All of these things understandably had a domino effect on the rest of his numbers -- his hard-hit rate allowed dropped nearly six percentage points and his SIERA went from 5.36 as a rookie to the 4.29 mark he posted this past year.
The Not-So-Obvious Improvement
Improved control is great and all -- and much better than not having it -- but limiting free passes doesn't matter if the pitches being thrown aren't of the quality variety. For Berrios, his arsenal took a huge step forward when compared to his first taste of the big leagues.
The below table uses FanGraphs' pitch values to show how much his fastball (wFB), curveball (wCB), and changeup (wCH) improved between 2016 and 2017.
It's good to see his fastball make such a drastic leap from one year to the next because, like most hurlers, it's his most-used pitch (61.4% in 2017). While each of his offerings improved after that tough rookie campaign, his curveball clearly made more progress than his changeup. He took full advantage of that if we once again take a peek at his pitch usage.
After throwing his curveball 21.6% of the time and his changeup 14.4% of the time in 2016, those numbers changed to 30.0% and 8.6% this past year, respectively. FanGraphs' pitch type splits show that his breaking pitch was the most successful of all his offerings in 2017, but there's a huge difference when comparing his two big league campaigns.
The below table shows his chase rate (O-Swing%), walk rate (BB%), strikeout rate (K%), swinging-strike percentage (SwStr%), ISO, and wRC+.
This offering went from a decent pitch to one he could consistently use when ahead in counts, which as we now know, he did with much greater frequency in 2017. He also consistently kept it down in the zone much better than his other pitches. Plus, it looks like this.
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
If it ain't broke, don't fix it, right? Berrios' arsenal took a step forward this past year at the big league level, and that improvement goes hand-in-hand with the obvious improvements that were previously mentioned.
Berrios' season-long numbers show us a pitcher that made tremendous adjustments at the highest level of play, but should there be any level of concerns over his struggles in the second half? After posting a 3.53 ERA with a 23.7% strikeout rate and 6.5% walk rate (all supported by a 3.99 SIERA) prior to the All-Star break, the right-hander regressed to a 4.24 ERA, 21.5% strikeout rate, and 8.9% walk rate (supported by a 4.56 SIERA).
While it's certainly something worth keeping an eye on, the short answer here is no.
His performance did take a step back, but we also have to be aware of the situation -- he received a workload he'd never experienced before as a pro ballplayer. Entering 2017, his career-high number for innings pitched in a season happened the year before, when he combined for 169.2 frames between the bigs and Triple-A. He set a new single-season career high this year, tossing 185.1 innings between those same two levels.
Sure, the difference in the number of innings appears minimal, but the majority of his workload in 2016 came in Triple-A (111.1 innings), while the majority of this year's came in the majors (145.2). That included more rigorous travel and the added stress of being in the middle of a playoff race (although it was likely welcomed with open arms). It obviously would've been better if he didn't take a step back after that impressive first half, but it's notable that his production didn't exactly fall off a cliff, either.
What's most important for the 23-year-old when looking ahead to 2018 is that he continues to keep his control... under control. That's linked to keeping the pitches within his arsenal crisp. Fresh off a bounce-back year, he should be brimming with confidence with his third big league season on tap. He has every right to be, and based off the changes we watched him make, so should we.