The Minnesota Twins are cooked. They entered the All-Star break at 39-50, sitting 15 games out of the AL Central lead and 11.5 games out of a wild card spot. While they continued to supply fairly characteristic run production, their brutal outputs on the mound and some bad luck on the injury front have left them with virtually no hope as far as the 2021 season is concerned.
And so it comes as no surprise that teams are expected to come calling on José Berríos. The New York Mets were the first team connected (no doubt as part of a link to the ever-occurring Josh Donaldson discussion), and there are sure to be others. In any case, the Twins don’t necessarily need to be inclined to move their ace. They can likely chalk much of their 2021 season up to things that are fixable with some additions to the pitching staff, some health throughout the lineup, etc. If that’s the case, Berríos likely stays. But if the Twins decide to capitalize on their misfortune in matters of “selling”, he not only represents perhaps the top pitcher on the trade market but one at the top of his game.
That’s more so the goal here. We could spend all day deliberating the merits of a José Berríos trade and whether it makes sense for Minnesota. But the interest in Berríos goes beyond that. He’s long been a pitcher who has been in sort of that second tier among Major League starters; he’s got chops and is good, but never quite elite. We always seemed to be waiting for him to take that next step. But quietly, given the nature of the Twins’ misfortunes, he’s shown signs of evolving into just that guy.
To date, Berríos ranks 21st among qualifying starters in fWAR (2.3). He doesn’t post the gaudy strikeout numbers (9.44 per nine) but still sits 26th there. His walks are back down after creeping up to over 3.70 per nine in 2020, coming in at 2.57 (the second-best mark of his career). Homers are down to the lowest rate of his career, with a 0.91 HR/9, no doubt thanks to a GB% that is at its highest (43.7 percent). His 3.48 ERA puts him at exactly 30, while his 3.40 FIP comes in at 21. In general, everything that Berríos has turned in has not only put him in around the 20 best starters in the bigs but largely comes in atop his outputs prior to 2021.
Virtually everything that Berríos did in 2020 is identical to 2021. Contact trends are almost exactly the same as well, with a 0.3 difference between his Soft% and Hard% against between the two seasons. And yet, he’s quite a bit better than a 4.00 ERA, 4.06 FIP, and 1.1 fWAR that he produced last year.
This is largely due to the evolution in how he’s deploying his pitches:
While we wouldn’t go as far as saying that Berríos has become a two-pitch starting pitcher in the vein of someone like Lucas Giolito, a lot is going on here. After seeing the changeup usage steadily increase for three consecutive seasons, the rate has plummeted there. That makes sense, given that he saw fewer whiffs (31.3 percent was a sharp seven percent decrease) and a jump over 10 percent his hard-hit rate against (37.5). Instead, he’s turned to the curve more often and supplemented it with the sinker. Hence the increase in groundballs and fewer homers against. It’s obviously more difficult to elevate against those pitches, especially when, in general, Berríos is locating better overall (indicated by his walk numbers).
Using the sinker more often has also allowed Berríos to make his four-seamer more effective. Hard hits have declined sharply against the four-seam fastball, falling over 17 percent down to 43.1 in 2021. He’s thrown it at virtually the same rate, but the xBA against has dropped from .333 to just .258 and the xwOBA against has dropped almost 100 points, down to .364. Of course, this also goes back to his ability to locate, as the four-seamer was coming in middle-middle in 2020 and has largely been focused on one side of the plate this year.
To recap: sinker-curve combo with a fastball primarily as a secondary pitch. The occasional changeup. The underlying stuff (whiffs, hard contact) hasn’t changed much, but his ability to locate those pitches has been a boon to a steady rise across the board for Berríos. It’s unlikely that his arsenal will ever lead him to post those eye-popping numbers that some of his counterparts atop the leaderboard possess, but this version of José Berríos appears to be the most effective he’s ever been because of it. If this is what he truly is, he’s a frontline starter in any rotation in baseball.
The only question is what the future holds for him. Given the nature of their season, how much do the Twins plan to sell? Is Berríos even a part of the consideration there? He’s a player to keep an eye on both for that reason and because of just how quietly excellent he’s been in 2021.
Randy Holt is a contributing writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @RandyHolt42.