Gary Lucas on JO Berrios
Image courtesy of Seth StohsRecently, I had the chance to chat with Gary Lucas, former big league pitcher and currently the pitching coach of the Ft. Myers Miracle. When asked to write about JO Berrios a few weeks ago, I thought Lucas would be the perfect person to talk to. The following gets into the mind of a man who have been in and around the game of baseball for a long time.
Lucas is in his first year as the Miracle pitching coach. Last year, he was the pitching coach in Cedar Rapids. He has played a large role in the development of JO Berrios over these last two seasons. I talked to him before the Futures Game about the Twins pitching prospect.
As a 19-year-old last year in Cedar Rapids, Berrios performed admirably. He went 7-7 with a 3.99 ERA. In 103.2 innings, he gave up 105 hits, walked 40 and struck out 100. This year, in 16 starts with the Miracle, he went 9-3 with a 1.96 ERA. In 96.1 innings, he gave up just 78 hits, walked just 23 and struck out 109. A significant, and dominating performance even before considering that he only turned 20 years old in late May.
Lucas said there are many reasons for the improvement in Berrios’s performance including his maturity and what he learned last year. However, he highlighted a couple of specific things that he has worked on.
“For the last month, he was pitching, for the most part, on four days’ rest. We've had a six man rotation here. I just thought a little less rest helped him to go out there on a more regular basis and have a more regular schedule and he didn't miss too many starts. I think it allowed him to get into a groove. I think the six man rotation is fine, and there are certainly some great reasons for it. I just think in his case, he had a little better feel for all his pitches when he was pitching a little more often.” Lucas continued, “So often, if you have a six man rotation between rain outs and off days, it could be seven days before you pitch. Now a lot of college guys are used to that, when they only pitch once a week, but for Jose being so young in the development stage, I think he reaped the benefit of working more often. We watched his workload in between starts and certainly tried to work on some things to better himself, but I just thought that was one of the major reasons.”
There was obviously more to it than just pitching on a regular basis. Lucas also says that it was usage and confidence in another pitch.
“The second reason I think that he progressed so well is he committed to using his changeup a little bit more. I think we've got a kid that mixed his pitches really well. He probably threw 60-to-70 percent fastballs most of the time in his starts. He probably threw 15-to-20 percent curveballs and 15-to-20 percent changeups, and it got to the point where the changeup wasn't just to get them off his fastball, it was an out pitch. He got a lot of swing and misses on all three, but I noticed he was getting a lot of swing and misses on his changeup in two-strike situation.”
So, is the success of the changeup due to deception or movement?
“This kid has some savvy. I noticed to right-handed hitters, he would throw it low-middle and it would dive in the dirt between the plate and the catcher. He got a lot of good results, some off balance swings when it went low-middle. Then he has the ability to turn it over to left-handed hitters, and some really good, off balance swings from left-handers when the ball would sink down and away to left-handers. He's certainly got touch and feel for that pitch so in essence, by throwing it a little bit more he got a feel for when to use it and how to use it.”
So pitching on a regular basis and the development and usage of the changeup have been very important for Berrios. He has also put up number which, according to Lucas has “helped his confidence go sky high.”
Berrios gave up five runs in five innings in his AA debut two weeks ago. In two starts since then, he has given up a total of two runs on seven hits in 13 innings. He’s walked one and struck out nine. I talked to Lucas just before he made his first AA start and asked if he believed that Berrios was ready for this jump.
“I do think he's ready for this Double-A jump. I think he's done most everything, in my guess, that you would want a young prospect to do at the A ball level in two years; certainly in innings, certainly with improvement on usage of pitches, mix of his pitches, command of his pitches, results. I think it's time to be tested. I don't think there's a reason to hold him back. We have to find out if the hitters who are better and more experienced are going to lay off stuff that is out of the zone, and if he'll make an adjustment and get it back in the zone, and get hitters out in the zone. You know, if you're a good Major League pitcher, you have to get outs in the zone. You can't get a lot of hitters to chase. You certainly have to have pitches that look like strikes and get the hitters to swing and miss at times, but I think you also have to be ready to challenge hitters in the strike zone. So, I think that's the next step, to see if he's got enough stuff in the zone that produces results. The better hitters know themselves. They chase less. They wait him out, and then we see what we've got. He makes quick adjustments. I saw enough legitimate strikes here that he wasn't getting all of his results out of the zone. He was in the zone with enough pitches here to merit the move up. We just need to see if experienced hitters react to him in any different way, so yes, I do think he's ready for this move.”
There is a likelihood that he could still miss a start at some point this season, likely fairly soon.
“I think he could benefit from a rest. I know there was some talk before he went up that we should rest his arm at some point, and I’m sure after the Futures Game, it'll probably be discussed of where to skip a start, and that'll be beneficial. 100 innings last year, and I'm sure he's on track to get 150 or more, and that's pretty good for a 20-year-old trying to be a guy for us in the big leagues eventually and pitch that 200 innings that we'd all like to see. But he's so young that you want to protect that arm and that's one thing I think they'd have to consider.”
The Futures Game was a big deal for Berrios, according to Lucas.
“I think it is. I think he looks back, playing for the WBC team. I think that gave him a taste of what he is capable of doing, to get that accolade. We have to do, as Twins pitching coaches, a half-year progress report on each pitcher, and I sat down with Jose like the others about mid-May and went over his goals, what he wanted to accomplish this year. Right away, without hesitation, he rattled off his three goals, and one of them was to be elected and pitch in the Futures Game along with making our All Star team in the Florida State League and hopefully getting moved up to AA.”
Check. Check. Check.
Lucas continued, “For such a young age, he is mature beyond his years. He has a mission that he is on. You can see that he is keeping his focus to stay on that path, and these are some goals he's reached. I know staying healthy would be another one. This is a big, big deal for him, I think, that he's accomplished this.”
Berrios is not a finished product, which should really be exciting for Twins fans. “I still think he's got a lot of things to work on, to improve on. At his age, who wouldn't? He's not in the big leagues yet, but he's certainly made some huge strides in a quick period of time.”
Gary Lucas, and the entire Twins organization, is excited about Berrios and what he could become. “We're just tickled in the organization that we have a young man of his stature and makeup and talent that's progressing, so it's really, really good for the Twins organization to have a pitcher of this caliber in our minor leagues.”
Twins fans are excited too about a rotation that potentially could include the likes of Alex Meyer, Trevor May, Kyle Gibson and JO Berrios. The thing is, with how Berrios has performed, and with his work ethic, it may happen sooner than anyone might have guessed.
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