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Why the Blue Jays were right to invest in José Berríos long-term

Yesterday morning the Blue Jays signed José Berríos to a seven year contract worth $131 million dollars. This is the largest deal the Blue Jays have given to a pitcher in club history and shows that Berríos, who was acquired from the Minnesota Twins at the trade deadline, was well worth the cost of acquisition.

For the Blue Jays getting this deal done now makes a ton of sense. Berríos dazzled in his debut for the Blue Jays, and in 12 starts for the club down the stretch, he pitched to a 3.58 ERA with a 3.28 FIP. Berríos from all reports seems like a player with a good character and makeup. Something the Blue Jays clearly value highly. Berríos fit in right away and showed a willingness to make adjustments when things weren’t going well.

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In an era of big velocity and high spin rate, Berríos doesn’t really have either. His primary pitch is the curveball which has a spin rate of 2338 rpm, which was middle of the pack last season, per Baseball Savant. His fastball velocity of 94.1mph, while slightly above league average, is hardly blowing anyone away these days. What Berríos does is mirror his pitches extremely well, so when he releases the ball the hitters aren’t tipped off to what is coming. This has led Berríos to becoming one of the best pitchers at getting hitters to chase balls and take strikes. Per FanGraphs, last season hitters chased 34.0% of pitches out of the strike zone against Berríos and he had a called strike rate of 19.2%, 10th in the league among pitchers who threw at least 70 innings. That combination is why Berríos was able to strike out a career-high 26.1% of batters with just a 9.9% swinging-strike rate.

On the surface paying a pitcher who over the last four seasons has an ERA of 3.71 might seem like an overpay, but dependable pitching is extremely valuable in today’s game and that is exactly what the Blue Jays are getting in Berríos. Over those last four seasons, only Aaron Nola has made more starts than the 108 Berríos has, and just four pitchers, Gerrit Cole, Nola, Zack Wheeler, and Zack Greinke have thrown more innings.

Wheeler’s deal is a good comp for Berríos. Wheeler signed a five-year $118 million contract with the Phillies two seasons ago. The Blue Jays are paying 6/$120M for Berríos’ free agent seasons, so they added an extra year of control to get a lower annual value, putting Berríos’ deal in line with the 6/$126 Yu Darvish received from the Cubs. There is an opt-out in the contract after the fifth year, but even then, a 5/$91M deal is not far off from what the 5/$85 the Astros gave Lance McCullers. The Blue Jays paid fair market value for a front of the rotation pitcher.

Projections for next season and future seasons are not out yet, but I would guess Berríos would be projected to be worth ~20 WAR over the duration of his contract. That would have the Blue Jays paying again roughly, $6.5M per win which is well below the $8M per win teams have been paying on the free-agent market. Given that Berríos has had a four-win season in each of his last two full years, that projection might even be conservative which would make the deal that much more favourable for the Blue Jays. Of course, should Berríos continue pitching that well over these next five seasons, he would be opting out and looking for another big payday at 32 years old.

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For the Berríos the deal is a little more puzzling. Yes $131M is a large sum of money and he is now set for life, but when he was dealt to the Blue Jays the sense from the Twins seemed to be that Berríos was set on testing the free-agent market. Should he have had another strong season this year, he would be entering free agency next season as arguably the best free-agent pitcher available and at just 28 years old. He could have been looking at a contract like Wheelers, or the 6/$140 Patrick Corbin got.

This tweet sums it up really well. Berríos in his short time must have really loved Toronto, the team, and the direction they are headed. This is a team that’s young, fun, and competitive. We have seen in the last two off-seasons with the signings of Hyun-Jin Ryu and George Springer this is a destination for free agents and a place where players want to play.

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The Blue Jays still have plenty of work to do in what we expect to be a busy offseason. In signing José Berríos they lock up a front of the rotation pitcher who may not be a true ace but is someone who you expect to give you 32 starts and give you close to 200 innings. In today’s game with openers and bullpen games, it’s valuable to have an arm you can count on to take the ball every fifth day. The Blue Jays are going to be contenders again next season and José Berríos will be right in the middle of it.