BOSTON — For Jose Berrios, it’s been a season of adjustments. He’s messed around with his arm slot; he’s tried new sequencing; he’s worked to attack different lanes. His catchers have set up in a variety of spots. He’s moved from one side of the rubber to the other and back again. He’s been searching for a consistent release point throughout, looking like the frontline starter he’s been when he has it, and suffering immense damage when he doesn’t.
Let’s take a quick trip through his year. Here’s what Berrios’ delivery looked like on opening day:
And here he is in June, having moved to the left side of the rubber:
A month later, Berrios was back on the right side in his Canada Day start:
And, finally, here’s Berrios from last weekend’s outing in the Bronx — where he struck out 9 over 6.2 innings of one-run ball — starting with his hands up at his head and keeping them there as he begins his delivery:
That’s the latest wrinkle. One Berrios has been working on with Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker for some time and is now utilizing in games. The idea is for Berrios to move more efficiently in his delivery, taking a quicker route to the ideal release point that’s escaped him all season. When it comes to pitching and hitting — anything, really — the fewer moving parts, the better.
Here’s what the hand adjustments look like side-by-side with his delivery from earlier this season, using Berrios’ May 11 start at Yankee Stadium for the sake of a consistent camera angle:
“It’s just about simplifying it a little bit to try to get some more consistency in his release point,” Walker says. “It’s really about his timing. When your hands move so much prior to release, there's always an issue of timing. And I think it affected him and his release point on his breaking ball.
“And it's not just on the grid showing the release point. It's when you're getting your grip, how you're getting your grip, how you feel with your arm stroke. And I just think it's seemed to clean him up a little bit. And we'll see if it continues to work.”
The early returns Wednesday at Fenway Park were inauspicious. Berrios worked around trouble in his first inning, but couldn’t in the second, walking Kike Hernandez on six pitches before getting burned by Franchy Cordero on an elevated fastball for a two-run shot, the MLB-leading 27th homer Berrios has surrendered this year.
But Berrios raised his level as the night went on, stranding runners in the third and fourth with a pair of timely double-play grounders, the first off a well-tunnelled curveball following a four-seamer to Rafael Devers, the second off another good breaking ball thrown in the same lane behind a two-seamer at the bottom of the zone. And then he retired his final six batters consecutively in the fifth and sixth innings, capping a five-hit, two-run effort in what eventually became a 3-2 Blue Jays win over the Boston Red Sox in 10 innings.
“He had really good stuff tonight. Velo was there, breaking ball was there. Changeup to both lefties and righties was there,” said Blue Jays interim manager John Schneider. “We felt good about him in the sixth inning there. And he answered the bell.”
Berrios’ sixth-inning conclusion was emphatic. He played curveballs off fastballs to fold Alex Verdugo with a four-pitch strikeout. Then, locked in a battle with JD Martinez, he reached back for the hardest pitch he’s thrown this season, a 97.2-m.p.h. heater he blew right past the Red Sox designated hitter.
And after an interestingly timed mound visit from Walker, Berrios started Devers with a well-located, 96-m.p.h. strike before getting him to fly out to deep right field. Berrios roared as he walked off the mound, pointing at his catcher, Alejandro Kirk, on the way back to Toronto’s dugout.
“I got in mind that I had to give all I got in my tank. I knew it was going to be maybe the last inning. I just came out for that sixth inning and did my best,” Berrios said. “I was fighting all night long with my — I don't know. Not stamina because I feel strong and healthy. But something out of my control, my body. But I was saying to [Blue Jays coaches,] I want to keep competing. I want to try to make pitches. And to be able to throw six innings and finish the way I finished, that's why I gave a pump to [Kirk.”]
Meanwhile, the Blue Jays scratched across a pair of runs in the fourth and fifth innings off Red Sox starter Brayan Bello and got the game to extras thanks to immense relief efforts, as Yimi Garcia and Anthony Bass each powered their way out of bases-loaded, two-out jams in the seventh and eighth.
Garcia touched 98 for only the sixth time this season; Bass, averaging 95 with his sinker this year, was up to 97.
The quality bullpen work didn’t end there, as Adam Cimber successfully navigated the ninth, setting up George Springer to lead off the 10th with a first-pitch, run-scoring double.
And Jordan Romano, one eye on the zombie runner over his right shoulder, retired the side with a flyball, a groundball, and a strikeout in the bottom half, as the Blue Jays won a game with different rules than the one Berrios started.
Of course, Berrios’s latest adjustment isn’t just about his release point. What’s been so maddening about his wildly inconsistent results this season is that his stuff — outside of a dead-armed, late-May night in Anaheim — has been as consistent as ever. Velocity’s been there. Spin rates are sound. Breaking balls are moving the way they should. At times, it’s just seemed like hitters have known what’s coming.
Like on opening day, when the Texas Rangers teed off on fastballs and let curveballs go by. Or mid-June in Chicago, when the White Sox whiffed on only two of Berrios’ 72 pitches. Or in both of his outings against Cleveland, in which the Guardians repeatedly ambushed pitcher’s pitches. The throughline between Berrios’ worst outings this season has been a lack of swinging strikes. And a lack of swinging strikes indicates hitters aren’t fooled by what you’re throwing.
Which is what makes Walker’s comments about the way Berrios manipulates the baseball in his glove to find his grip so interesting. Does Berrios’ new mechanic minimize his movements? Certainly. Does it also hide his right hand better as he adjusts his grip? Yep. And does it keep the ball hidden in his glove a beat longer before he comes to the plate? Sure does.
“We’ve tried some different things. When you’re manipulating the ball. Where you’re manipulating the ball. How you're coming out of your glove, whether it's high or low. Your arm path, your arm swing,” Walker says. “You know, if there's ever anything going on with any tipping within the delivery, this would help to simplify it. It might alleviate some of that.”
Walker’s not saying anyone’s tipping. But if Berrios was, it would certainly help explain how one of the most consistent and dependable starters of the last half-decade rolled into late August with MLB’s highest qualified ERA and the league lead in home runs allowed. If you’re the Blue Jays, and this season’s persistent tinkering and adjusting has yet to produce dependable results, don’t you almost hope that’s the case?
Whatever it is, the Blue Jays need to get Berrios right down the stretch and into the post-season. He isn’t being paid $131-million over seven years to be a Game 4 starter in a championship series. And yet, the fact that starting either Berrios or Ross Stripling in the third game of a post-season clash has become not only a reasonable debate to have, but one Berrios may not win, says it all about the season he’s had.
So, now it’s time to build. Time to carry the momentum from solid outings in New York and Boston forward into what’s to come. Time to solidify those new mechanics, time to not let hitters pick up any hint of what’s coming. Time to be Jose Berrios again.
“I feel so strong. We’re in a good rhythm. I want to keep building on top of that,” Berrios said. “That's why we work. That's why we come here to the ballpark and go so hard — to get results like I got tonight. I want to take that and keep motivating myself. I want to keep it going forward.”