Why Harder Might Not Mean Better for José Berríos
Image courtesy of © Jordan Johnson-USA TODAY SportsJosé 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.
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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