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Why Harder Might Not Mean Better for José Berríos

The Twins’ ace hasn’t been one through the first quarter of this 60-game season, and that’s hurt within and between his starts. His hard stuff, in particular, is failing him.
Image courtesy of © Jordan Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
José Berríos defies the modern trend among the best pitchers in the big leagues. As the league throws ever fewer sinkers and favors the four-seam fastball more strongly than it has in 50 years, Berríos has remained committed to throwing both the four-seamer and the sinker. Indeed, the sinker is an important part of his repertoire. Unfortunately, right now, it’s a pitch on which he can’t rely at all, and his four-seamer is little better.

On Monday, Parker Hageman wrote a great post about Berríos creating more velocity, a project that has been ongoing for the pitcher and coach Wes Johnson since before 2019. Parker broke down Berríos’s mechanics in granular detail, and even mentioned drills that promote the kind of power the hurler has found this year.

Yet, Parker also touched on the ugly numbers attached to Berríos’s fastball and his sinker thus far this year, and we should dig deeper into them, because there’s reason to believe that power just isn’t the key to success for Berríos. His efforts to throw 96 or 97 miles per hour might be doing more harm than good.

So far this season, most of Berríos’s fastballs have fallen between 93 and 95 miles per hour. Let’s look at his results on those, and on heaters (for these purposes, the sinker and the four-seamer go together) at higher and lower velocities.

Attached Image: Berrios.png
It’s true that, when he throws harder, Berríos is able to miss bats with his hard stuff, which isn’t true in the lower velocity band where he spent much of last season. The problem is especially pronounced on his sinker, which he throws about 1.0 miles per hour less hard than the four-seamer: his whiff rate on that pitch is currently at a career-low 10.8 percent of all swings against it.

However, opponents have been better able to elevate against him when he throws harder, and they’re hitting the ball harder, too. The league has just a .200 slugging average when Berríos throws less than 93, but a 1.500 mark when he cranks it up past 95.

Parker isn’t wrong to observe that opening his hips a hair earlier has allowed Berríos to generate more power. However, that tweak might be causing two problems, while solving just one. Berríos is clearly fighting to command both variations of the fastball, and the more explosive delivery he’s using this year is a culprit in that. He’s sometimes late, and therefore, missing up and to the arm side. He’s sometimes overcorrecting for that, feeling the earlier release of his hips, hurrying his release, and missing down and to the glove side.

The other problem this adjustment might be creating is harder to see, from a center-field camera, but the hitters are doing all they can to tell us that it’s there: Berríos has lost some of the deception he got from striding across his body and staying closed so long last year. Parker rightly wrote that that mechanical signature led to throwing around his front side, costing him power, and I wrote about the barriers to long-term success with such an unorthodox delivery this spring.

On the other hand, there are clear advantages to that delivery, and deception is at the top of the list. Hitters who pick up the ball later in a pitcher’s delivery make weaker contact, when they make contact at all, because they’re a bit later getting their barrel to the hitting zone. Sheer power can make up for a loss of deception, especially if one has a good, riding four-seamer, but Berríos’s arm slot has always allowed him to create more lateral than vertical movement, and again, the sinker is an important piece of the puzzle for him.

If batters are getting an earlier and more confident look at Berríos as he delivers, they’re gaining a bigger advantage than he’s gaining by throwing harder. Their bats, which might normally meet the ball at the end or the handle, especially on a good sinker, are meeting it at the barrel this year, and it’s not just bad luck. Maybe there’s another adjustment Berríos can make to unlock ace-caliber stuff and command in tandem, but in the meantime, throwing harder has made him worse, and the Twins are without a true top-of-the-rotation starter.

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6 Comments

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Richard Swerdlick
Aug 11 2020 03:17 AM

Ahhh baseball. A game of adjustments.

Berrios has never had good command so I don’t see throwing harder as the problem. However hard he throws he has to hit his targets better that is when he will be an ace. The stuff is there.

The old, "if it is not broke don't fix it" thing.Was he a dominate ACE?No.However, he was a top level guy much of the year.This year he is a liability early on.Even more so, when you plan to count on someone so you stick with them longer.His last start his breaking ball was not doing much, something he used to dominate with.Wonder if the greater power is reducing the movement.It will be interesting to see what little adjustments he makes moving forward. 

    • DocBauer likes this
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Parker Hageman
Aug 11 2020 09:39 AM

This is a very good analysis. 


I should clarify something however because I may have not described what is happening with his hips well enough in the adjustment. 
 
Parker isn’t wrong to observe that opening his hips a hair earlier has allowed Berríos to generate more power...

 


 
When I said his hips are now more open, I'm referring to the static alignment prior to foot strike and not their rotation. So it's not an opening-timing thing, it's a directional piece. His hips are now open (if you are looking at a pitcher overhead and drew a line through his hips, think somewhere between this \ and this | instead of /) striding out into foot strike before he starts rotating into the lead leg block.  
 
Last year Berrios demonstrated a much more pronounced toe push off of his back foot. This movement in general keeps pitchers from maintaining their hip line with the plate. When pitchers are able to drive from their full foot more, they tend to have better direction home as the hips fire forward. The Twins and Wes Johnson have used this to improve several of their relievers (Duffey, Littell, May) and got more consistency and velocity out of them. 
 
When a pitcher closes off the hip alignment, the position of hips can decrease the transfer of kinetic energy which zaps velocity and command. We saw this last year with his inability to locate a glove-side fastball. For some pitchers the crossfire move isn't inherently bad. Brewers' reliever Freddy Peralta uses it to his advantage but if you watch his alignment, his hips are still in a better position with the plate than Berrios was last year. Peralta is crossfiring but he's also in a good position. 
 
All that said, there may be other rotational parts of his mechanics that are causing some of the issues you've outlined. One of the big issues for him last year was chest rotation and rotating that too early. That was one cue that was constantly preached to him (keep your chest closed as long as possible). I would not be surprised to learn that the biodata still shows he's opening that up too quickly which would lead to command issues. 
 
We should not forget that he's also working on his arm action as well which could also lead to timing issues as he's trying to sync everything up. 
 
My personal thoughts on this is that he is much improved mechanically. This is the right direction for him. But incorporating new movements into the game environment is challenging. Several years ago Kyle Gibson revamped his mechanics and arm action during an offseason at Florida Baseball Ranch and it took the first half for it to feel comfortable. And that was with a normal spring training and season. 
 
The velocity component of my post may have gotten a little overemphasized but that's one of the products of the improved movements. The other *should be* command. Gibson came back to Minnesota in 2017 with the new mechanics and needed the first half of the season to feel comfortable but his second half and 2018 were very solid -- strikeout rate went up, walks went down.
 
I think we'll see him settle in more after getting the necessary game reps to feel comfortable. For Gibson, he told me in spring training a few years ago that that was about 10 starts. So it's quite possible it could take this entire weird season for Berrios. 
 
Good thoughts. 

 

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I don't even pretend to be an expert, but I think the analysis provided by Parker and Matt are BOTH correct.

Better mechanics can lead to increased velocity, which is a good thing. Better mechanics can also lead to better control of your stuff. And I suspect Berrios is struggling with some of those mechanics and trying to find consistency. I think the Gibson reference is a good one considering Berrios is trying to tweak some things on the fly.

But, while not true for every pitcher, it's also true that taking something off of pitches can also lead to more movement and even better control at times.

Perhaps adjusting the velocity of his 2 and 4 seam pitches could make a difference?
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Parker Hageman
Aug 12 2020 08:45 AM
Perhaps adjusting the velocity of his 2 and 4 seam pitches could make a difference?

 

 

Velocity in this case comes from movements of the lower half, not like accelerating or decelerating the arm intentionally. If pitchers try to do that -- in either direction -- they tend to have more issues.  

 

I don't think the Twins staff would advise him to take anything off or make changes to those movements now. It would definitely be great if they worked 100% on day one but there's still some issues. I think they understand that it is a process and it takes time to master. 

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