There were a lot of questions about José Berríos coming into this season. The 26-year-old has flashed ace potential throughout his career, but his 2020 campaign left Twins fans wanting more. With a 5-4 record and 4.00 ERA, it was fair to wonder if Berríos was still the Twins’ best pitcher or if Kenta Maeda had taken that title from him.
Berríos showcased several of his positive traits in his first start against the Milwaukee Brewers. His 12 strikeouts over six hitless innings showed that he still has what it takes to be the Twins’ ace.
In a season full of uncertainty, Berríos’ success has to be measured outside of wins, losses, and ERA. His overall stats could give the appearance he’s reached his ceiling, but his ability to miss bats last year should make the Twins excited about what he can do this season.
According to FanGraphs, Berríos logged the highest swinging-strike rate of his career at 11.6% last season. That ability to make hitters miss translated into a career-low 74.7% contact rate and a 25.1% strikeout rate, his best since 2018.
While Berríos kept hitters off-balance, it was what happened when those hitters made contact that forced him off his game.
Opposing hitters logged an average exit velocity of 88.7 mph off Berríos last season. That number was his highest since his rookie year in 2016 (90.2 mph). Statcast recorded Berríos allowing a 39.7% hard-hit rate, also the highest percentage of his career.
Those numbers could have been a big reason why Berríos was hesitant to attack the zone last season. The right-hander tended to nibble on the corners, which led to 39.6% of his pitches landing in the strike zone. He was reverting to his rookie tendencies, where he threw just 38.3% of his pitches in the zone.
Berrios alleviated those concerns against the Brewers. He pitched aggressively against a powerful Milwaukee lineup, throwing 45.2% of his pitches in the zone. As a result, he needed just 84 pitches to get through six innings.
His ability to keep the Brewers off balance added to his effectiveness. Of those 84 pitches, 16 were swinging strikes. Expecting Berríos to log a 19% swinging-strike rate is unreasonable, but the Brewers were getting pitches in the zone and weren’t able to do anything with them. Statcast logged an average exit velocity of 78.1 mph and a 50% whiff rate on the evening.
It’s a good indication that he is returning to his 2019 form; he’s throwing more pitches in the zone and opposing hitters can’t make contact. Berríos was dominant for the first 22 starts of the 2019 season, going 10-5 with a 2.80 ERA. His July 31 start against the Miami Marlins bore the most similarities to what happened in Milwaukee on Saturday night.
That night, Berríos threw seven shutout innings with 11 strikeouts against the Marlins and logged 13 swinging strikes on 81 pitches. His ability to pitch efficiently while also limiting what hitters can do convinced the Twins not to make a move for an ace at that year’s trade deadline, and it put Berríos in a position to lead them into the postseason.
While Berríos faltered toward the end of 2019, there’s no reason why that can’t rise to become the Twins’ ace in 2021. Maeda made the Opening Day start for the Twins, but there’s an argument to be made that Berríos is just as talented. With Michael Pineda and J.A. Happ also in the rotation, there’s no pressure on Berríos to carry the rotation.
That could lead to a scenario where the Twins have a better and deeper starting rotation than expected. If it leads to Berríos pitching as he did on Sunday, Minnesota will be a serious contender in the American League.