Jose Berrios, Velocity and Where Do We Go From Here
Image courtesy of © Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY SportsBerrios failed to run his fastball up past 96 miles per hour in 2019.
For somebody with fanatical dedication to training combined with a pitching coach known to be a velocity whisperer, it was a strange development.
During spring training in 2019 Berrios tried to make some mechanical changes - such as keeping his chest closer longer and driving through his heel instead of his toes -- during his preseason outings. He would hit 96 on the Hammond Stadium gun. When the regular seasons started however, the promised heat remained in Florida.
In reviewing Berrios’ outings from 2019 on Baseball Savant, one would find he hit 95 and ran it up to 96 twice yet there were other outings where he threw fastballs that didn’t even crack 90 (40 times). For the entire year, he averaged 92.7 on his fastball. His fastball velocity was in the 45th percentile (that’s bad). This year it is in the 73th percentile (that’s...better than average!).
Fastball velocity matters for Berrios because when he has thrown his fastball under 94 miles per hour, opponents have posted a .287 batting average. When traveling 94.1 and above however he has a .161 average.
That is one reason why being able to maintain that elite level of velo can be one key to his success.
Here we have two examples from 2019 and 2020. The action on the left is a 91.3 mph fastball and the one on the right is at 95.8.
While a high frame rate Edgertronic camera would be better suited for this type of analysis, we can still see several key points in his mechanics that have been improved upon. The first is the sink into his back leg.
By sinking into his back leg, as he does in the example on the right, he’s activating his big leg muscles and feeding the engine to rotate faster. Cincinnati’s Trevor Bauer had a great explanation of hip rotation in this drill video. Rather getting too dominant on his front side, Berrios maintains connection to his back leg a bit longer now. That stores some force when he pops his hips open and generates better hip speed.
Additionally, when his front foot lands, his hips are now more open which, compared to last year, when Berrios would land with his hips slightly closed off and have to throw around it, leading to drift in his hip direction.
This is an important factor considering that research has shown that when pitchers have their hips closer to 45 degrees of home plate (assuming perfectly inline with home and second base is 0 degrees), they are able to generate more hip speed when they rotate.
Another reason why Berrios has been throwing harder this year is because he has more elbow spiral to his arm action. Again, a high definition, high frame rate slow motion camera would provide a better perspective but in lieu of that, you can see some of the action in this grainy clip.
There are multiple ways to achieve this arm action but one effective method would be the pivot pick drill in order to implant this movement into his system which, in addition to the arm path, helps reinforce the necessary hip and shoulder separation needed to gain velocity. It is not known if Berrios actually incorporated that drill into his offseason regiment but it is a drill that Kenta Maeda uses regularly to keep his arm path consistent.
What most fail to understand is how in-depth this process is.
The Twins have a network of brain power at work trying to unlock additional velocity -- from the front office to the training room to the coaching staff.
In addition to their Rapsodo, Trackman and Statcast data, the Minnesota Twins are armed with the latest motion capture technology like Simi Motion systems and Newtforce ground plates, allowing the organization to see the unseen. While most viewers just see velocity readings or -- for those who dig into Statcast data -- spin rate and pitch movement data, the Twins can tell how a pitcher is moving and where things can be optimized. There’s the hip speed, chest speed, pelvic tilt, arm action and more. These metrics can indicate where deficiencies exist.
Increasing hip speed and arm path takes work. It takes time with the training staff to build those muscles, balance, and flexibility. It takes time with the coaches working on technique. We have seen this process in action with several players now. Pitchers like Jake Odorizzi (91.1 in 2018 to 92.9 in 2019), Trevor May (94 to 95.5), Martin Perez (92.8 to 94.2), Zack Littell (92 to 93.8), and Taylor Rogers (93.5 to 94.8) all showed gains from 2018 to 2019.
One of the few that didn’t follow that trend was Berrios but that is looking like it is changing.
When they review his last four outings from their massive data collection system, the Twins will likely see these signs of progress for Berrios. They will see how his hip speed increased aiding in the transfer of energy through the baseball. They will see improved arm action and other various movement patterns changes which entices more velocity.
So it’s not as if he is just throwing harder based on some early season adrenaline rush. It’s possible that the results of the Jose Berrios velocity overhaul project were just delayed a year.
And while that is all fine and well, the real concern is the actual performance. The velocity is up, which is a good thing, however the results have been average at best. His souped up four-seam is heading in at 94.2 but it’s coming back at him at 96.2 miles per hour and opponents have amassed a .792 slugging percentage off of it. Velocity is great and increases a pitcher’s margin for error but that margin evaporates quickly when you miss your spots that badly.
Last year with less velocity on his fastball he had lower exit velocities, hard hit averages, fewer barrels, more whiffs, basically everything a pitcher needs to sustain success.
What it may come down to with Berrios is a matter of pitch direction. There was a fervent push to re-haul some of Berrios’ pitch mix, including getting him to throw his four-seam fastball more and adding a more north-south breaking ball to complement the sweeping version. The four-seam fastball is definitely in vogue but the right-hander has struggled to elevate his and he uses that pitch 40% of his mix. Meanwhile, the combination of his sinker heading to the east and his curveball heading to the west have hitters posting a .125 average. The sinker, in general, won’t be thrown quite as hard as the four-seamer but it’s been one of his most effective pitches thus far.
So rather than trying to squeeze Berrios into the north-south mode, he might be better served working east-west with the occasional upstairs showpiece. He's been one of the team's most promise yet hard to solve projects.
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