José Berríos is a fellow boricua who is from Bayamón, Puerto Rico. That town has produced some very well known baseball players, namely Javier Báez and the Molina brothers. There are more famous residents of Bayamón besides those named, many of whom I am sure current residents brag about. Berríos is on his way to having Bayamón residents brag about him, too.
Berríos was a highly touted prospect coming up through the minors. He was drafted 32nd overall in the first round of the 2012 draft out of Papa Juan High School in Bayamón (yes, apparently there is a Papa John high school). He became a top-20 prospect in baseball, and was seen by many as a front of the rotation starter.
Adam Hayes wrote up a scouting report at Baseball Prospectus on Berríos, just eleven days before he made his major league debut. It was a glowing report. He was seen as athletic with an easy delivery. His fastball, curveball, and changeup all graded out as plus pitches. His control also graded out as plus, which is pretty impressive for a guy who was just a month shy of his 22nd birthday. Hayes ended his report by calling Berríos “an elite talent.”
Berríos made his major league debut on April 27th, 2016, and sadly, it was memorable for all the wrong reasons. He gave up five runs in just four innings, striking out five hitters but walking two of them. He made 14 starts in what was a disastrous debut season.
One could argue that Berríos suffered some bad luck with a low strand rate, a .344 BABIP, and a 16.2 percent HR/FB ratio. There might be some truth to that, but I would argue that he just pitched really poorly. Those stats I just cited are not meaningful for someone who is not a major league quality pitcher, and with a 8.64 RA9 and 7.04 DRA, Berríos was clearly not a major league quality pitcher in 2016. He had poor strikeout and home run rates, too, and his plus control was absent. He walked 12.5 percent of hitters faced.
The Twins sent Berríos up and down multiple times in 2016. Perhaps the lack of consistent playing time affected him, but it is hard to explain away an 8.64 RA9 by anything other than bad pitching. Understandably, he also started 2017 in the minors. He made six starts and was excellent. He had a 1.84 RA9, 25.7 K%, and his plus control returned with a 5.3 BB%.
Berríos got the call-up on May 13th, 2017, and he played the entire rest of the season in the majors. He was not great, but it was a drastic improvement as he went from unplayable to average. He had a 4.39 RA9 in 25 starts, with strikeout and walk rates a little better than league average.
If we go by the deceptive stat of ERA, it looks like Berríos is currently only slightly better than last year, with a 3.52 ERA versus a 3.89 ERA. However, his difference in RA9 is more than twice as good: a 3.52 RA9 this year versus a 4.39 RA9 last year.
(This is not meaningful at all, but it is odd that Berríos suffered eight unearned runs last year but zero this year. The defensive metrics say that the Twins’ defense has been considerably worse this year, though Byron Buxton is probably the biggest reason why that is. As always, distinguishing between unearned and earned runs is silly.)
On top of that good 3.52 RA9, Berríos’s strikeout rate has risen to about 26 percent. Even better, he is showing that great control he had in the minors. His 5.6 BB% is tied with Rick Porcello for the 15th-best in baseball among qualified starting pitchers. His 2.2 WAR has already surpassed his season total of 1.8 WAR last year. If he improves further, he could crack 5 WAR for the season.
In today’s game, pitching a complete game is rare. Besides obviously having to pitch well, there is a lot of luck and circumstance involved. Managers will not hesitate to pull a pitcher in the interest of his health, regardless of how well the starter is pitching or the state of the bullpen. It would not surprise me if manager Paul Molitor is a bit old school, but Berríos has two complete games already this year. According to the Play Index, that actually is tied with Carlos Carrasco and James Paxton for the league lead. One of those complete games was a shutout, an accomplishment he shares with only 13 other pitchers. No pitcher has more than one complete game shutout this year.
Berríos is only 24 years-old. He could get even better. He is solidly a number-two pitcher as is. It is certainly exciting to think that he could surpass the ceiling that scouts projected for him. Even if he does not, he already is a player that residents of Bayamón should brag about.
. . .
Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.