When Jose Berrios gave up nine earned runs in 5.2 innings on Aug. 6, a 12-7 loss to the Atlanta Braves, he stood in front of his locker and said he wasn’t locating his pitches and couldn’t get swings and misses on his curveball.
Ronald Acuna Jr. homered off Berrios’ first pitch, and by the middle of the sixth inning the Minnesota Twins were down 11-0. Minnesota scored three runs in the sixth and seventh innings: Nelson Cruz homered twice, and Mitch Garver and Eddie Rosario each added one of their own. But it wasn’t enough, and Berrios, who entered the game with a 2.80 ERA, saw it spike to 3.24 after that outing.
“The only thing I want to remember is the home runs we hit and how we tried to battle back,” he said. “On my end, I just want to forget about it and move forward, and tomorrow’s another day.”
He only gave up three earned runs over six innings in his next start, a 7-3 loss to the Cleveland Indians on Aug. 11. But he gave up seven earned runs in 4.1 innings in a 12-7 win over the Texas Rangers in the Arlington heat on Aug. 17, and then gave up a grand slam against the lowly Detroit Tigers on Friday.
He was nowhere to be found after that game.
“Last night I was not in a good frame of mind,” he said Saturday, “after everything that transpired.”
Berrios has a pattern of swooning as the season goes along. He had a 3.53 ERA and 1.08 WHIP in the first half of 2017, then posted a 4.24 ERA and 1.37 WHIP in 15 second half starts. A year later, his 3.68 ERA and 1.01 WHIP earned him his first All-Star appearance, but he had a 4.15 ERA and a 1.40 WHIP in 12 second half starts.
On July 31, he had a 2.80 ERA. He has an 8.44 ERA in August.
“I feel good mentally (today),” he said. “Physically I feel good.”
Berrios keeps himself in shape. He’s notorious for 6:00 a.m. beach workouts back home in Puerto Rico during the offseason, and uses various rubber balls and other equipment to stay limber between starts. He’s often in a full sweat on days when he isn’t pitching.
The nickname is La Makina. The machine.
But his second half swoons have people wondering if he’s overworking himself, or if he has the durability to be a front of the rotation pitcher throughout the year. The Twins have been diligent about ensuring that their players receive adequate rest and as a result their starters have remained healthy, for the most part.
“It’s fair to acknowledge that there’s been a period of time where Jose hasn’t been as good as he normally is,” said Rocco Baldelli. “There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that. I also think it’s fair to acknowledge that there are a lot of indicators that say he hasn’t struggled as much as people are wanting to discuss and talk about and say.”
Baldelli went on to say that he feels that Berrios is throwing the ball fine, but is failing to execute in big moments. That judging him on the grand slam alone doesn’t represent his overall body of work.
Which is fine, in theory. But he’s given up more than three runs in three of his last four starts, the second half struggles are a pattern and Minnesota needs to beat up on teams like Detroit in order to provide a buffer between them and Cleveland.
He got himself out of jams in the first two innings on Friday, gave up more hard contact than he used to through five scoreless and then allowed six of the seven batters he faced in the sixth inning before giving up the grand slam to utility man Ronny Rodriguez.
When asked what indicators, specifically, the Twins are looking at that tell that that Berrios will improved, Baldelli said “I don’t have them all written down in front of me.”
“We were in here discussing them actually earlier, but as a whole, Jose’s thrown the ball very well for us this year,” he added, referring to a meeting he had with Derek Falvey earlier in the afternoon. “When you start looking at the stuff, the stuff is similar. You can point to some things that are slightly above, slightly below where he was last year, but it’s not far off is the point.”
Berrios’ velocity had dropped down to 92-93 mph in recent starts, but is back to around 95 mph recently. The shape of his curveball is also vital to his success. When it flattens out, he tends to get hit around.
“I’m focusing on quality rather than quantity,” said Berrios. “I don’t really focus that much on velocity. This year I probably have more innings at this time of the year than I did last year. My ERA is kind of lower than last year at this time of year. So I’m focusing on the quality of my outings and things like this and not focusing on velocity.”
Berrios is correct on both counts, although the difference isn’t monumental:
April 1-Aug. 21, 2018: 26 starts, 158.2 IP, 3.69 ERA, BA vs. .224/.292/.370
March 28-Aug. 23, 2019: 26 starts, 163.0 IP, 3.53 ERA, BA vs. .249/.301/.402
Baldelli says that Berrios and the pitching staff is working on his mechanics, hoping that after a few adjustments he’ll return to All-Star form.
“We are working on my front shoulder, trying to stay closer,” said Berrios. “Staying longer on my heel. I’m probably opening up and I’m missing location and I’m leaving pitches in the middle.”
Berrios is 25. He’s hard-working and affable. When his fastball is in the mid-90s and he’s got his curveball going, he’s unhittable. But the start against Atlanta, which appeared to an aberration at the time, currently looks like a part of a troubling pattern right now.