Can José Berríos Hold Up Without a Changed Delivery?
Image courtesy of © Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY SportsWatch José Berríos pitch, and the first thing that grabs you is his delivery. As good as Berríos’s stuff is, his high leg kick, crossfire stride pattern, and hyperkinetic finish make him especially compelling. All of that is also what makes Berríos’s future murky.
Over the last three seasons, Berríos has blossomed into a solid frontline starting pitcher. He’ll turn 26 next week, before any MLB games are played in 2020, but before the onrush of the coronavirus, he looked like a strong candidate to break out this year, becoming a genuine Cy Young contender. He spent the winter training in a new, less intense way, the better to stand up to the rigors of a long season. He spent the spring tweaking the shape of his curveball, trying to get less horizontal sweep, more deception, and more whiffs from the pitch.
Those attempted adjustments form an interesting juxtaposition, though, with Berríos’s delivery. In all of baseball, there are only two right-handed starters who consistently release the ball from as extreme a horizontal angle as Berríos: Jake Arrieta and Max Scherzer. Ranking every player-season with at least 2,500 pitches since 2015 (when Statcast began tracking this data) according to horizontal release point, Arrieta and Scherzer take up nine of the top 13 slots, and Berríos’s 2018 and 2019 are two of the remaining four in that group.
Both Arrieta and Scherzer are famously intense in their workouts, as Berríos has been ever since he was drafted. They’re extraordinary physical specimens, with high-energy, high-intensity deliveries. Crucially, they’re also each a few inches taller than Berríos. That underscores what sets him apart from each of them: his funk and his crisscrossing limbwork are doubly unusual for a pitcher on the small side. To create the sharp angles he achieves, he has to not only stride somewhat toward the third-base dugout and throw across his body, but start on the third-base edge of the rubber, as well.
It made some sense to do so, as long as Berríos was relying heavily on his four-seamer and his unique, two-plane curve. Scherzer thrives using that approach: 85 percent of his pitches are four-seamers or breaking pitches that move to the glove side. From that arm angle, the four-seamer and a good breaking ball can work optimally off of one another, even if that breaking ball ends up varying widely from the heater in both dimensions by the time it reaches home plate.
However, Berríos used his sinker and changeup a combined 38.7 percent of the time last year, a career-high mark. If that’s his plan going forward (and I believe it should be), then a slightly less extreme horizontal angle from release to the strike zone could be called for. That goes double if he has, indeed, reshaped the curve into something that won’t sweep naturally off the plate horizontally.
Arrieta is the more compelling comparison for Berríos, anyway. Their frames and their deliveries are more similar: compact, extremely athletic, obviously powerful, yet also, clearly vulnerable to occasional loss of command and repeatability. As one might guess, Arrieta’s repertoire (especially at his peak) is also a better fit to that of Berríos. Arrieta has long relied on his power sinker, and on a tight, two-plane curve.
Because of misguided instruction in the Orioles system, Arrieta didn’t become the ace-caliber pitcher Berríos is poised to become until well after age 26; he wasn’t even established as a big-league starter until 28. Now, a mere half-decade after his peak, he’s on the brink of being pushed back out of the majors. His peak only lasted about three seasons. Obviously, Berríos has youth on his side in this comparison, but it’s worth wondering: can a pitcher remain both highly effective and healthy for a prolonged period using the delivery Berríos and Arrieta employ?
The fact that Berríos goes through periods within seasons during which his velocity sags is a small red flag. The lack of a durable pitcher with whom he can be easily compared is, perhaps, a larger one. Yet, that might also be the strongest argument in favor of leaving Berríos alone: he’s a unique pitcher. Good decisions, in the age of biomechanics and pitch design, can and should be made without resorting solely to reasoning and evaluating via analogy.
Arrieta didn’t realize his potential until the Cubs allowed him to go back to his natural delivery, after the Orioles tried to straighten him out. Perhaps Berríos (whose rookie season was marred by a severe alignment problem in his own delivery) would be similarly damaged by trying to do things more conventionally.
Still, as he develops more trust in the pitches that move toward the arm side after release, and as he changes the shape of his curve, he might be wise to make adjustments to his mechanics (or his placement on the rubber) that match those tweaks in objective.
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