The Strange Case of Jose Berrios
5 months ago
Jose Berrios clearly has his Halloween costume down very early this year because his performances have been straight out of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
In that story, the normally mild-mannered Dr. Jekyll transforms into his twisted inner persona Mr. Hyde after taking a drug. In terms of pitching, the usually remarkably consistent Jose Berrios has often resembled his own version of Mr. Hyde in 2022. Despite a very strong month of June, Berrios has returned to his struggles so far in August, while the Blue Jays as a team sputter along as well.
According to the Toronto Star’s Mike Wilner, Berrios’ earned run average (ERA) in the six of his starts that have ended in Blue Jays losses stands at a staggering 12.44. Whereas in the sixteen of his starts where the Blue Jays have won, Berrios has been quite good. In those starts, his ERA is 3.41, which includes his opening day start where he did not get out of the first inning and a start against the Angels where he gave up six earned runs and Blue Jays still won. But overall, the dastardly Mr. Hyde version of Berrios has outweighed and bled into the fact that the majority of Berrios’ starts have been solid and left his pitching stats looking mighty crooked.
So, what is going on to make one of the most consistent pitchers in MLB before this season so wayward in 2022? Well, Berrios has always generally given up his fair share of hard contact, which has led to his expected ERA (usually around 4.00) always ending up higher than his actual ERA (somewhere in the mid to upper 3.00s). He has usually made a very average contact profile work by avoiding the walks and home runs that can compound the hard contact he generally gives up.
However, almost across the board of contact measures, Berrios looks worse in 2022. His rate of barrels (contact made that has the ideal combination of launch angle and exit velocity to do damage) has jumped from 9.1% in 2021 (before 2021 his career average was about 6%) to 11.2 in 2022. Furthermore, his average exit velocity (88.4 mph in 2021 to 90.5 mph in 2022, bottom 6% in MLB) and hard-hit rate (38.3 in 2021 to 44.5 in 2022) have also ballooned. Pleasantly, this season he has continued to avoid walks at an above-average rate, but the main culprit is that he has given up home runs at a rate that far exceeds the league average. This season he has given up a homerun nearly 5% of the time (his HR% is 4.9%), which is far above the MLB average of 3.2%. For most of his career, he has been about average in HR%, so this is a meaningful difference in his results.
The Blue Jays have seen a pitcher make this kind of HR rate work, as Robbie Ray had a HR% of 4.3% during his Cy Young season in 2021. Ray in 2021 and Berrios in 2022 are actually startlingly similar. They have similar marks in terms of having higher than average hard-hit and flyball rates, while also being slightly below league average in terms of groundball rates. Berrios is better at avoiding walks than Ray in 2021, but one big difference is that Ray had a much healthier batting average on balls in play (BABIP) than Berrios (.269 for Ray in 2021 as opposed to .313 for Berrios in 2022). In the six of Berrios’ starts where the Blue Jays have lost, capturing most of his blow-up starts, his BABIP sits at an eye-popping .419.
In order to give up a bunch of home runs and remain effective, you have to limit baserunners such as Robbie Ray did in 2021. Ray avoided hits and walks but gave up a bunch of solo home runs. Berrios has been severely punished while giving up home runs at an above-average level through regular hard contact making it hard for his defence to limit his BABIP and thus baserunners. Kevin Gausman has an astronomically high BABIP at .368, but I am more inclined to conclude this is bad luck coming from some poor fielding decisions and Gausman’s splitter inducing weak contact from off balance batters that works away from the aggressive defensive shifts the Blue Jays deploy. Gausman after all has a hard-hit rate that is almost exactly league average at 38.5%. In Berrios’ case, pure bad luck seems less likely to explain the full story. The regularity of Berrios giving up hard contact means that he makes defending behind him harder and generally makes him more prone to having any minor inconveniences adding up to blow-up innings.
One possible explanation for his struggles is his complete loss of effective location for his Fastball and Sinker in 2022. Berrios switched sides on the pitching rubber early in the 2022 season to get his curveball going to great effect, but in turn he seems to have lost an edge on his fastballs. His 4-seam fastball has generally been hit hard over his career. But he has gone from batters having a .275 batting average (AVG) and slugging percentage (SLG) .538 in 2021 to a .378 AVG and .664 SLG in 2022. He has also gone from generating whiffs on 21.3% of his 4-seam fastballs in 2021 to seeing whiffs only 16.9% of the time in 2022. His sinker on the other hand has gone from being quite effective in 2021, with hitters putting together a feeble .266 AVG and .384 SLG in 2021, to hitters punishing Berrios’ sinker to the June of a .314 AVG and .520 SLG in 2022.
Jose Berrios Heat Map for 2021, from Baseball Savant
Based on his heat maps, Berrios seems to be struggling to replicate his elevated 4-seamer from 2021, as his 4-seamer now appears to catch almost all of the plate without a noticeable point of attack. As for his sinker, it also seems to be catching much more of the plate in 2022, after often running off the shade of the plate on Berrios’s arm side in 2021. His loss of sinker command has also made his gameplan much less clear, as attacking in with his sinker to right-handed hitters to set up his curveball running away was an effective recipe in 2021 and the loss of his sinker command takes that relationship between his pitches away from him. Finally, with both of his fastballs catching way more of the plate, he has given up 15 of his 26 HRs (57.7%) off of those two pitches. In short, Berrios seems to be giving up more hard contact overall which is then punished heavily with an increase in the rate of home runs he is giving up. Both of these issues seem to stem from his fastballs.
Jose Berrios Heat Map for 2022, from Baseball Savant
If home runs are the drug that turns Berrios’ usual Dr. Jekyll into his version of Mr. Hyde, it seems imperative that locating his fastballs better is key to curbing his HR binges. This could involve switching him back across the rubber, as he was in 2021 when his fastballs were more effective. Or there may be other ways that the Blue Jays pitching support staff can find to re-establish Berrios’ more effective fastballs to avoid hard contact, lower his BABIP and HR rate.
Either way, fixing the command of his fastballs may be the key to a more consistent Berrios over the rest of the 2022 season.
All stats were taken from Baseball Reference unless otherwise noted.
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