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Can We Blame Bad Luck for Berríos’ Early Performance?


Among American League pitchers with enough innings to qualify for the ERA title, Berríos currently sports the third-highest Batting Average on Balls in Play, .333, which is about 56 points higher than the league as a whole right now. Let’s say a few general things about Berríos and BABIP, shall we?I have an old friend, which I promise is my last brag of this piece, who believes fully in stats as a way of analyzing things like sports performances and understands the folly – or limitations, perhaps – of trusting your eyes. And so I was shocked when this friend said, rather plainly, that observation would be much better than stats if only you could observe every part of a performance and hold it in your memory correctly. I’m paraphrasing a little, but that was the gist of it. Stats over eye test, mostly, unless you could actually take the eye test and apply to its fullest extent.

 

So it is with José Berríos so far this season. Our eyes tell us that it’s not going well for him through 5 starts, especially given our collective expectations. The box scores never look that awful, and yet, he’s running a 5.92 ERA. Despite the default ‘small sample’ warnings, we’re very close to half of his scheduled starts for the 2020 season.

 

Among American League pitchers with enough innings to qualify for the ERA title, Matthew Boyd has allowed the highest batting average on balls in play (BABIP). We used to treat the BABIP leaderboard as a stand-in for the good- or bad-luck leaderboard for pitchers. Now, that’s a bit oversimplified way of looking at it, for a couple of reasons. That might be beyond the scope of this article, and I’ll get to the point. Boyd is having a rough start to his season. Nathan Eovaldi is second on that list, and Berríos is third. Opponents are hitting for a .333 batting average against him when they put the ball in play and it doesn’t go over the fence, about 56 points higher than the league as a whole right now. (Just for fun, the other end of that list starts with Lance Lynn in the top spot, followed by Kenta Maeda [2] and Randy Dobnak [4]).

 

Let’s say a few general things about Berríos and BABIP:

 

1) Loud, solid contact should not be treated the same as tappers and dribblers. Evaluating quality of contact is crucial.

 

2) He’s walking too many hitters, which you can think of as a symptom of command issues. His 11.7% walk rate is almost double his rate from last year, and I don’t think that will work to achieve his goals. We’ve seen some questionable plate umpiring, but in my eyes we also haven’t seen the most impressive command of Berríos’ career. He doesn’t always hit his spot, he can’t always find a strike when he needs one, and there are too many non-competitive pitches at times.

 

3) BABIP ignores home runs, and the Bad Guys have gone yard in four of Berríos’ five starts this year.

 

4) It’s also true that he’s been the victim of some bad luck. And with neutral luck or good luck, his stat line would appear to paint a rosier picture.

 

Take, for example, his last start, Saturday at home against the Royals. In the 4th of one of the double-header games, two full-count walks preceded a 3-run homer against Berríos. One of the walks was a non-competitive pitch. And the home run, to Whit Merrifield, was a changeup and it didn’t look like middle-in was all that close to his desired location for that pitch. So, you might hear it explained as “one mistake,” but the truth is that it’s an example of a series of mistakes, with an exclamation point that shows up in the box score.

 

The start before that, in Kansas City, Berríos walked Merrifield in the 3rd inning (pitcher’s fault), and then Jorge Soler hit a weak bouncing grounder that found its way through no man’s land on the right side of the infield (bad luck). Merrifield moved to third base on the play and later scored on a sacrifice fly. Earlier that day, it was a lazy fly ball that found grass (you might call that bad luck) followed by Soler missing a home run by six inches (not bad luck), and then a weak ground ball right to second base got through a shifted infield (bad luck), and the result was a two-run single.

 

I won’t go through this whole exercise and try to retroactively take “earned runs” and erase them from Berríos’ ledger. But hopefully the examples illustrate my point.

 

I think he hasn’t been quite as bad as we generally associate a 6-ERA pitcher. In watching back some sequences from his previous starts, I’ll be tempted going forward to track the number of non-competitive pitches. Anecdotally, there have been too many for a top-flight pitcher like Berríos. Maybe now that the Twins have their ace, the pressure’s off. You’d like to see the command round into form and for Berríos to stop walking guys and serving up homers. Oh, and a little batted-ball luck could help him out, too.

 

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I think the walk rate is a huge deal, and that is mostly not luck.  Last year he had huge chase rate, maybe league picked up on that, or maybe his pitches are easier to pick up this year.  Sure he will get some bad calls ball strike wise, but he will get some good ones too.  He cannot seem to find where he wants to throw the ball.  He keeps missing spots.  The bad luck part of will hopefully even out, if it has not.  

 

I agree BABIP is not a true teller by itself of "luck".  You need to look at hard hit and barrel rates to compare to it.  If you are top tier in having weak contact, bad launch angle, and low barrel rate, but have a high BABIP, that means bad luck.  But if you give up hard contact at good launch angle and hitters barrel up, you BABIP should be high. 

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Berrios is overrated in my opinion.  He has that often used ugly word:  potential.  But reality is he cannot be counted on.  He puts together a streak of games that make you think he finally turned the corner and will be an elite pitcher.  Then he turns around and puts together an equally terrible streak of games where you are dreading every game he starts.  It is difficult for me to say it is a maturity thing.  I think this is just who he is.  But is is a scary proposition to throw him out there in a must win situation and you are just hoping on the flip of a coin that you get the good Berrios.

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In hoping that Berrios' struggles are a phantom, I wondered whether his bad August performances, now that we can include this one, are about jumpy fly balls and not fatigue. The BABIP numbers hint at that, but they don't explain the poor control and the anecdotal ground balls slipping through that you chronicled.

 

So now I'm back to worrying

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It's not bad luck. The thing that has kept him from being elite in the past is command. And if/when that regresses from spotty to bad, he'll be average, at best. Apparently, the 'if' is YES, and the 'when' is 2020.

This. And I don’t like the exercise where we take away bad luck as I’m sure there have been some ropes hit right at guys. His mechanics have always been kind of funky and I think causes him to be inconsistent

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We’ve been trying for years now to rationalize Berrios’ performance not living up to expectations. The most absurd on the scale being the “working too hard” schtick, while any other great athlete will typically credit late nights training while everyone else was sleeping, etc).

 

It’s time we adjust our expectations. He’s not an ace. He’s a good pitcher. Sometimes he’s great. But, he has an issue consistently commanding his pitches. That’s the bottom line.

 

This is why relying on pitching projections is a problem. This is why many around here, like me, have long advocated aggression in the pursuit of free agent pitching. We’re in big trouble, here. I’m not feeling super comfy about a Maeda, Dobnak one-two punch at Yankee Stadium in the ALCS.

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I think it's unfair to expect Berrios to evolve into a true "ace" #1 starter, but I think he can be a solid #2 starter if he improves his consistency. For what it's worth, Eno Sarris had an article in the Athletic today talking about ten good pitchers who have had poor starts to the season and whether or not he thinks each one will turn it around before the season's end. He sounded more confident about Berrios turning it around than any other pitcher on his list since his movement, arm slot, and pitch selection are about the same as they were last year, and his velocity is actually up from last year. Let's hope he starts his turnaround tonight!

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Berrios is overrated in my opinion.  He has that often used ugly word:  potential. ... scary proposition to throw him out there in a must win situation and you are just hoping on the flip of a coin that you get the good Berrios.

 

I totally see what you're saying, although Good Berrios is great. It's obviously frustrating to have to discern before a start if you'll get his best, his worst, or something in between. At the same time, that's kind of life as a starting pitcher for all but the very best. 

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This. And I don’t like the exercise where we take away bad luck as I’m sure there have been some ropes hit right at guys. His mechanics have always been kind of funky and I think causes him to be inconsistent

 

The implication is that I'm cherry picking only the bad luck and that's not true here, unfortunately.

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It's not bad luck. The thing that has kept him from being elite in the past is command. And if/when that regresses from spotty to bad, he'll be average, at best. Apparently, the 'if' is YES, and the 'when' is 2020.

 

Nah, I don't think I can get down with this. See his latest start as evidence that it's not over for him (at 26). 

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I think it's unfair to expect Berrios to evolve into a true "ace" #1 starter, but I think he can be a solid #2 starter if he improves his consistency. For what it's worth, Eno Sarris had an article in the Athletic today talking about ten good pitchers who have had poor starts to the season and whether or not he thinks each one will turn it around before the season's end. He sounded more confident about Berrios turning it around than any other pitcher on his list since his movement, arm slot, and pitch selection are about the same as they were last year, and his velocity is actually up from last year. Let's hope he starts his turnaround tonight!

 

Right on cue! And great point on Eno - he does great work. When I spoke to Eno this spring he said that he can see Berrios as still having Cy Young upside. I think we'll all agree that he's not getting there without better command than we've seen this season, but his 'stuff' has wowed his he entered pro ball. Thank you for the comment! 

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