TORONTO – Between starts, Jose Berrios’ process includes watching video from his previous outing, diagnosing trouble spots, considering solutions and then consulting with pitching coach Pete Walker and other Toronto Blue Jays staff members.
“Four eyes are better than two,” explained the right-hander. “We get on the same page, then we create a plan and try to execute it.”
After his last outing in Anaheim, when he allowed six runs in 2.1 innings and his fastball velocity was down about 2½ m.p.h., Berrios needed a plan. Before striking out a career-best 13 over seven dominant innings in Saturday’s 12-3 beatdown of the Minnesota Twins, he and the Blue Jays came up with a pretty good one to address both the dead-arm that plagued him last time out, and the troubling amount of hard contact he’s surrendered this season.
“I’ve been throwing a lot strike fastballs but not quality fastballs and that's led to a lot of damage,” he said ahead his outing. “That's one of the things I've been working on.”
One of, and far from the only thing, each collectively contributing to his impressive rebound against the team that traded him away last summer.
First and foremost, Berrios’ velo was back and then some as he averaged 94.3 m.p.h., up a tick from his baseline, and maxed out at 95.8, alleviating concerns that last week’s drop was tied to his health. To counter what he said was “one of those days you don't have power in your arm,” his throwing program was adjusted, training scaled back and nutrition amended, leading to a strong mid-week bullpen “that was a good sign.”
Then, Berrios and the Blue Jays sought to better utilize his repertoire, which Angels outing aside, has charted better than its played.
“We think we can do a better job of putting ourselves in a better position to finish hitters off,” is how Walker put it. “Obviously, it's establishing the fastball, locating the fastball and tunnelling it with his breaking ball better than he’s doing.”
This chart of his 2022 release points offers a good starting point:
Notice that his curveball and changeup are grouped more toward the bottom of the cluster, while his fastballs are more at the top. To better unify the release point, they made a slight adjustment on the pitching rubber and tweaked how Alejandro Kirk set up behind the plate.
Against the Twins, the tunnel was much tighter.
Next came better location with his heaters, avoiding the glove side of the plate middle up with his four-seamer, and middle up with his sinker, the primary trouble spots for both pitches. In turn, each offering forced Twins hitters on their heels, making his curveball, especially, and changeup even more effective.
Of his 13 strikeouts, six came on curveballs, five on sinkers and one each on the four-seamer and change. He got 19 whiffs, two shy of his career-best.
“When you got those two pitches working you, it gives the slider and the changeup even better opportunities to get swing and miss,” Kirk said through interpreter Hector Lebron. “He made great, great adjustments for today.”
Putting away batters had been an issue for Berrios this season, as opponents ended up batting .273/.310/.382 in the 58 plate appearances after he’d gone ahead 0-2 before Saturday, and .244/.306/.356 in 49 plate appearances after he’s been ahead 1-2.
What matters, Walker believed, “is not just getting into those counts, it’s how you're getting there and what you use in those counts.”
“Just because you're 0-2, 1-2, it doesn't mean you're going finish somebody off with your nasty breaking ball if you're not getting there the right way, if you're not setting up your pitches the right way,” he continued. “So we're working on sequencing his pitches better, commanding his fastball and getting to the right spots better, in order to tunnel his breaking ball better.”
All those elements came together Saturday and even the sole damage against Berrios, Jorge Polanco’s two-run homer in the first, came on an outer edge four-seam fastball that a lesser hitter may very well have rolled over.
After Nick Gordon’s leadoff double in the second, he didn’t allow another base hit, walking only two and hitting one over his final five frames.
“I think my strength is sinker and then slider down and away,” said Berrios. “We created a plan, we worked on that, I executed it well, so we got really good results today.”
The Blue Jays quickly undid that deficit on a Bo Bichette solo shot in the first along with a Cavan Biggio RBI double, George Springer RBI infield single and a run-scoring error by shortstop Jermain Palacios in the second.
Kirk continued to crush with a two-run homer in the third, while another two-run drive by Vladimir Guerrero Jr. in the fourth really opened things up before a crowd of 36,987 and beneath a pristine afternoon sky. A George Springer sacrifice fly in the seventh plus a two-run single by Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and Biggio RBI single in the eighth capped the scoring.
The win was a ninth in 10 games for the Blue Jays after their eight-game win streak ended Friday, and 13th in the last 17 outings overall. More importantly, the plan Berrios and the Blue Jays worked, and he looked more like his dominant self than at any other point this season.