What's preventing Jose Berrios from becoming the Twins' ace?

Will 2020 be the season that Berrios puts it all together?
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Jose Berrios

The Minnesota Twins are speeding toward the start of spring training next week and with the possibly-maybe-but who knows acquisition of Kenta Maeda, there's plenty to feel optimistic about when it comes to their starting rotation. With solid pitchers lining up from the first spot to the fifth, the Twins can likely go toe-to-toe with some of the best teams in the American League. 

But it still feels like something is missing.

At first glance at their main competition, that something seems to be a true, legitimate ace. The New York Yankees have Gerrit Cole. The Houston Astros have Justin Verlander. Heck, even the Chicago White Sox have Lucas Giolito and the Cleveland Indians have Mike Clevinger. Most of the top teams in the AL have a bonafide ace, but the Twins don't. 

This is why despite the additions Rich Hill, Homer Bailey and possibly Maeda, this rotation still feels like it's missing something heading into the 2020 season. The Twins' best bet to fill this void is Jose Berrios, but it'll require a breakout season. 

Berrios has gone 43-34 for the Twins with a 4.21 ERA in four seasons. With an ERA that's gone south of four in each of the past three seasons, many expected the 25-year-old to make that leap into the upper echelon of American League starters in 2019 and his first-half showed exactly what he could be if he puts it all together.

Through his first 15 starts of the season, Berrios appeared to be in true ace form. He dominated the Indians on Opening Day (7.2 IP, 2 H, 10 K) and didn't look back, posting an 8-3 record and 2.86 ERA. 

More importantly, the Twins were 11-4 in games he started and while his strikeout percentage was down from his first two seasons in the big leagues (24.1% from 2017-18 to 22.9% in first 15 starts), his walk rate took a dramatic downturn from 7.7% to 4.7%.

Things didn't quite look right from there, however, as Berrios seemed to be tightrope walking through starts but still produced solid box scores. Part of the reason was a career-high 50 percent of his pitches in the zone and although he logged a career-high 33.4% chase rate, hitters were making contact at a 63.8% clip -- his highest mark since his rookie season in 2016.

As hitters were able to barrel up Berrios (his 6.5% barrel rate was his highest since his rookie season), it's possible the right-hander started to press and his walk rate regressed back to the mean with a 7.6% clip over his final 17 starts, which produced a 6-5 record and a 4.47 ERA.

This made things uneasy when Berrios started Game 1 of the ALDS for the Twins. That experience would've been more comfortable had this regression not occurred. In all honesty, this is the final hurdle that Berrios needs to clear to become a true ace.

Although he has pitched much better in the first half (26-15, 3.70 ERA) than in the second half (17-19, 4.84 ERA) during his career, last year's flaws seemed like more bad luck than anything else as he didn't lose much movement on his pitches and his strikeout rate (23.1%) was on par with his career average (23.1%).

If Berrios can cut down on his walks and turn in a full season, the Twins might have their ace in waiting and Berrios might have the payday he's been looking for after the 2020 season. 

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