Gap to gap: How Blue Jays’ Mitch White found his velocity, why Jose Berrios is throwing a cutter

From right off the mound to the headset, Blue Jays starter Jose Berrios talks about his impressive first spring start of 2024, how they came up with the idea to add the cutter to his pitch arsenal, how much chemistry this rotation has, and much more.

DUNEDIN, Fla. — Here’s an interesting early development from Grapefruit League play:

That’s Mitch White, out of options and working this spring to earn a spot on Toronto’s opening day roster, dotting a 98-mph fastball at the knees to Juan Soto on Sunday. And here he is later in his outing, driving another 98-mph heater up-and-in to Josh VanMeter:

Those two pitches were both harder than White’s career high in a big-league game — 97.5 mph — which he notched back in 2021. In all, he threw five pitches in his Grapefruit League debut that registered higher than the fastest pitch he threw in the majors last year: 96.2.

Back on the mound Thursday in Dunedin, White sat at 96 and touched 98 again — this time carrying that velocity into his second inning. Here he uses it to freeze Garrett Stubbs:

Safe to say in the time since we last saw him in a Blue Jays uniform seven months ago, it appears White has unlocked something on the mound.

“Yeah, he was doing that in Buffalo towards the end of the year,” says Blue Jays manager John Schneider. “Well, maybe not 98.”

There are a few things at play here. The primary one is health. White entered spring training last year still carrying a shoulder injury that cropped up toward the end of 2022, subsequently battled elbow inflammation throughout camp, and spent the beginning of his season grinding through a frustrating, start-and-stop rehab process. It wasn’t until he was designated for assignment in late July that White took a step back from the pressure of competition to reset and consider his best path forward.

After spending a week of DFA limbo away from baseball entirely with friends and family in New York, White returned to triple-A Buffalo feeling refreshed, both physically and mentally. He went to work with Bisons pitching coaches Tim Norton and Carson Phillips to hammer out some delivery inefficiencies and shorten his arm action, cueing himself to get his arm up before he started moving toward home plate in order to transfer force more linearly.

By the end of the year, White’s fastball velocity ticked up over 95 mph — he averaged 93.9 mph in the majors last year before his DFA — and regularly touched 97. He finished the year on a seven-start run that saw him pitch to a 1.89 ERA with a 31.4 per cent strikeout rate across 33.1 innings.

He spent his off-season in San Diego continuing to strengthen his shoulder through twice-a-week sessions with a physical therapist. He also spent time working with eccentric private pitching coach Dominick Johnson, whose backyard bullpen has been a productive winter training ground for a host of Southern California based MLBers including Joe Musgrove, Mike Clevinger and Chris Devenski.

Reporting to Blue Jays camp this spring, White’s velocity crept up again. He increased the speed on his cutter (often classified as a “bullet slider” by pitch trackers) as well, which will be an important, high-80s weapon this season against left-handed hitting.

White’s goal is to have adequate separation between that harder cutter and a mid-80s slider (pitch trackers see it as a sweeper) that he’ll work away from right-handers. The two offerings have at times blended into one another in the past. Add in the low-80s curveball White can drop in at the bottom of the zone and he’ll have four weapons he can use to work north, south, east and west.

“He made a bit of a tweak in his delivery with his lower half that really unlocked some things for him. His breaking stuff is a lot sharper, too. A lot harder,” Schneider says. “Being healthy and really having his delivery where he wants to, if he can hold that, that’d be awesome for us.”

Of course, everything starts with White’s fastball, which will certainly play at 98. The 29-year-old says his arm and mechanics currently feel as sound as they have since 2017, when he was flirting with triple digits during his first spring training with the Dodgers.

A range of injuries — a broken toe, blister issues, a herniated disc, persistent shoulder troubles — routinely undermined his progress in the seven subsequent seasons, and White will need to show the Blue Jays more this spring than a couple promising outings to earn a spot on the club’s opening day roster. But you can trace his early spring showing back to the tear White finished 2023 on at Buffalo. And all he’s done since is continue to build.

“My body’s in a good place right now, I’m moving better. Mechanically, I’m feeling better with my lower half, my arm slot,” White says. “I definitely want to be competing from the get-go in terms of executing pitches — especially in situations with runners in scoring position. From here on out, that’s the plan.”

That’s the next step for White — staying on the attack. Thursday against the Phillies, he worked ahead of five of the nine batters he faced but allowed four to reach — three on walks. The Blue Jays believe that with the calibre of stuff White is featuring this camp, there’s no reason for him to shy away from the zone with his fastball when he gets to two strikes.

“It’s electric stuff. He’s getting ahead and then picking a little bit and not putting hitters away,” Schneider says. “Overall, we’re really encouraged. He’s carrying over what he’s been doing in bullpens and lives. I thought his stuff was really, really good. He just ran some deep counts. … Two-strike sliders or curves were just a bit short. So, I think it’s about carrying the zone a little bit more. And putting guys away in three or four pitches. He has that kind of stuff right now.”


Something else to keep an eye on: Jose Berrios’ new cutter. He’s been quietly developing it over the winter and throwing it in bullpens this spring. His confidence in the pitch isn’t quite where it needs to be, which explains why he threw it only twice in his first Grapefruit League outing Thursday. But the Blue Jays want to see Berrios throwing it more often as he continues ramping up this spring.

“It’s feeling good,” Berrios says. “But [Thursday] we only threw two because when you start to compete, you’ve got that mindset as a competitor to go out there with my strengths. But it feels good. I threw one and got a groundball to second.”

Here’s the pitch Berrios is referring to:

Boring in like that on Bryson Stott’s hands is exactly how Berrios would like to use the new offering. Previously, without needing to worry about a pitch that breaks to Berrios’ glove side, left-handed hitters could hang out over the plate and hunt his four-seam fastball away. The hope is the cutter will neutralize that.

Berrios’ troubles against left-handed hitting over the last two seasons are well documented, and although he was better overall in 2023 than in 2022, lefties still ran an xSLG of .542 against his four-seamer. Their barrel rate against the pitch has been 16 per cent or higher in each of the last four seasons (for context, the league average barrel rate of left-handed hitters against right-handed four-seamers last year was 9.7 per cent).

That tells you left-handed hitters have been seeing Berrios’ four-seamer pretty well. And the pitching change heard round the Blue Jays world in Game 2 of last year’s wild-card series told you how the club feels about over-exposing Berrios to lefties in consequential situations.

But if he can both front-hip two-seamers against left-handed hitters and drive his cutter in on their hands, he’ll give himself a better chance of keeping them from hanging out over the plate looking for something flat.

“I think having another pitch going the other direction on those guys is big,” Schneider says. “Or even to righties when he’s behind or even in counts, trying to pitch to some weak contact.”

This will be a work in progress to monitor throughout Blue Jays camp. Berrios ultimately needs to get to a place with the pitch where he’s comfortable enough to throw it more than twice in a pre-season game. If he doesn’t think it’s a good weapon against the Phillies on a February afternoon, he’s not going to want to use it against the Yankees come April.

I know it’s going to be a good tool for me,” Berrios said. “Four-seam, two-seam, and cutter glove-side against lefties is going to be a good weapon. If I keep practising and am able to throw it whenever in the at-bat, it’s going to be a big plus for me.”

Arden Zwelling is an on-field reporter for Blue Jays broadcasts on Sportsnet. Gap-to-gap is his regular column for expanded Blue Jays and MLB notes, thoughts and non sequiturs that don’t quite fit on TV.

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