It’s no secret that the Twins have been utterly devoid of an ace since Johan Santana was traded to the Mets over a decade ago. Since Santana’s last Opening Day start in 2008, the Twins have seen the likes of Livan Hernandez, Vance Worley, and Ricky Nolasco on the bump in Game 1 of the season.
Enter Jose Berrios. The Puerto Rican right-hander was dominant on Opening day for the Twins in 2019, spinning 7 ⅔ innings of shutout ball, coupled by 10 strikeouts. Could Berrios be the long awaited ace that Twins fans are looking for? Does he have the makeup of a pitcher who can go out and give his team a great chance to win every five days? Could he be the pitcher that throws two or three great games in a seven-game series to help the Twins (gulp) advance in the playoffs for the first time since 2002?
While dreams of a deep playoff run may not come true this season, they do seem more likely in the near future with developing young players on the major league roster and a talented farm system. Ideally, Berrios will be a key part of those potential runs, as he won’t be a free agent until 2023. To predict the future value of Berrios, we will go back to his roots with the Twins.
Drafted 32nd overall in the 2012 MLB Draft, Berrios impressed from the start of his minor league career. As an 18-year old out of Puerto Rico, he he quickly progressed through the farm system, displaying a sub-four ERA each year. Ranked as a top 100 prospect by MLB.com and Baseball Prospectus before 2014, Berrios really hit his stride in that season. The right-hander posted a 2.76 ERA that year, shooting up to the top 50 in most rankings prior to the 2015 season. After another stellar year in 2015 in AA and AAA (2.87 ERA), Berrios was ranked in the top 20 in both the Baseball Prospectus and MLB.com prospect rankings.
Based on Berrios’ minor league statistics, the right-hander would seem likely to develop into an ace. However, in his first year in the big leagues, Berrios struggled mightily, going 3-7 with an 8.02 ERA and just a 7.6 K/9. Berrios has improved significantly since then, posting a 3.89 ERA in 2017 and a 3.84 mark in 2018. Those ERA’s don’t scream “ace”, but Berrios was just 23 and 24 for those seasons, and has shown flashes of elite potential in both seasons.
Taking a look at his statcast metrics, Berrios has improved throughout his short major league career. His whiff rate has increased to in each of his past three seasons, sitting at 26.4% through two starts this season (MLB average: 24%). His weak contact rates have also increased in of his seasons, including an enormous 15.8% (MLB average: 4.7%) through 14.2 innings this year. Berrios’ chase rates have also increased in each of his past three years in the bigs, while the contact percentage for hitters on those pitches has dropped every year as well. This season batters have made contact on just 50% of his pitches that they chase, a full ten percent below the major league average (60%).
The overall effectiveness of Berrios’ pitch arsenal will be a key in his development from an above average pitcher to an ace. First of all, The young right-hander has a unique pitch mix that can be baffling to batters when used correctly. Here is a look at Baseball Savant’s pitcher comparisons to Berrios between .42-1.0 (similarity score). This is put together based on the speed and movement of Berrios’ pitchers.
In contrast, take a look at the Kyle Gibson’s similarity scores from .42 to 1.0.
Berrios’ unique pitch arsenal keys on his curveball, as he has thrown the deuce more each season. Last season, batters had just .253 wOBA against Berrios’ curve to go along with a 38.8% whiff rate. However, batters hit 10 home runs off of the young right-hander’s number two, the most among any of his pitches. This season, Berrios has throw the curveball 37.9% of the time, as batters have just a .088 wOBA(!) against the pitch. Limiting the long ball will be key for Berrios to take the next step to becoming an ace, as he gave up 25 home runs last year (tied for 25th most in the MLB).
Another key will be Berrios’ change-up. The 24-year old has featured his change-up more in his first two starts of 2019 than in past years, with a higher rate of success. He has generated a 46.2% whiff rate on the pitch in his first 14.2 innings this year. He also has thrown it solely against left-handed batters so far, featuring the change 25.6% of the time against southpaw hitters. If the pitch can become a legitimate weapon this season, Berrios should be able improve his already solid numbers versus lefties in 2019.
Berrios has shown improvement in each of the past three seasons, and with the help of the new pitching coach Wes Johnson, it seems likely the young Puerto Rican will continue to improve in 2019. He has already shown flashes of his potential early in this season, and if he continues his current performance he will easily be the Twins’ best hurler since Johan Santana. And he will also become ace the Twins and fans have been searching for the past decade.
What will Jose Berrios’ career look like?
This poll is closed
A perennial Cy Young candidate
A solid ace, the best Twins pitcher since Johan Santana
A good pitcher, but more of a number 2 starter on most teams
A middle or back-end of the rotation pitcher