By David Singh | Photography by Jalani Morgan
By David Singh | Photography by Jalani Morgan
Despite a rich history of star position players, Puerto Rico has yet to produce a genuine MLB standout on the mound. Blue Jays hurler Jose Berrios could change that — and inspire the island's next generation of pitchers in the process.

Jose Berrios is finishing up a conversation with a reporter in the Toronto Blue Jays dugout and is about to head into the tunnel to the home clubhouse. Sporting a thick rope chain and a warm smile, he’s sweating from shagging fly balls during batting practice under the early August sun. The Rogers Centre roof is open, the temperature is nearing 30 degrees Celsius and the air at field level is dense with humidity. As Berrios daps his interviewer, the Blue Jays’ newest starting pitcher spots a hand waving him over from behind home plate. It’s Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora.

Cora has been chatting for the past 10 minutes with Blue Jays third base coach Luis Rivera about life and the trade deadline that just passed. The Puerto Rico natives go way back and now welcome Berrios, a fellow Boricua, to the conversation. Cora knows the right-hander well from his time as general manager of Team Puerto Rico for the 2017 World Baseball Classic.

Red Sox catcher Christian Vazquez, who like Berrios hails from Bayamon, catches a glimpse of the congregation and hustles over, with batting gloves and a bat tucked under his left armpit. He’s about to take his BP cuts, but has to offer handshakes to Berrios and Rivera first. Teammate Enrique Hernandez, also preparing to hit, follows suit. They just wouldn’t feel right if they didn’t.

Of those five assembled Puerto Ricans, four made their names in baseball as position players; Berrios is the only pitcher. That demographic breakdown is unsurprising — even assumed. While the island has a rich history of producing catchers, infielders and outfielders, there has never been a Puerto Rican hurler who developed into a household name in MLB. The reason why is a question that has puzzled many.

Ask the men swapping stories behind home plate to name the greatest pitcher to ever emerge from the island and most will land on right-hander Javier Vazquez, who began his career with the Montreal Expos, earned his lone all-star appearance while with the New York Yankees, and pitched for four other clubs over his 14-year big-league career. Ask the same men, along with others embedded in Puerto Rican baseball, and they will tell you that Berrios is next in line to the throne. If he stays healthy and continues on his current trajectory, the 27-year-old could one day be known as Puerto Rican pitching’s GOAT. And perhaps more importantly, Berrios could one day inspire the island’s youth to imagine themselves on the mound when they fantasize about a future in the bigs.

“Worst-case scenario, he’s Javier Vasquez,” Cora says of the legacy Berrios could claim when his career is over. “That’s his worst-case scenario.”

There was a time when Berrios was the outlier in his baseball family. His father, uncle and brother were all pitchers at various levels of Puerto Rican ball, and yet Berrios was fixated on shortstop. Those around him used to jokingly tell the teenager that his family was an apple tree and he wanted to be an orange. Berrios didn’t care, though, and there were aspects of his game well suited to short: He was a slick fielder with a cannon arm, and he could also run. His hitting, however, lagged considerably behind.

Edwin Rodriguez, founder of Team Elite, a travel team that Berrios played with during his junior year of high school, recalls consulting with members of his staff who possessed MLB coaching and scouting experience. Each person came back with the same assessment: If Berrios wanted to pursue a career in the majors, it wasn’t going to be at short. He had taken up pitching on the side, usually only an inning at a time, and everyone agreed that he should make use of his arm and immense athleticism by moving to the mound full-time. Another factor worthy of consideration: Carlos Correa, who would eventually be drafted first overall and grow into a star shortstop for the Houston Astros, also played for Team Elite.

“This is a tough thing to do with kids, when you gotta go over and say, ‘Hey dude, you can’t swing anymore, you’ve got to just pitch,’” Rodriguez says of his conversation with then-17-year-old Berrios. “Because he really, really loved playing shortstop. And then it became something where it was hard for him because Correa was there. And he’s like, ‘You know, Correa doesn’t run much better than I do. We both have a cannon for an arm.’

“And I’m like, ‘Yeah, but dude, you can’t hit like Correa.’”

Today, Berrios readily concedes that he couldn’t hit and that he made the right decision. But that was a tough pill to swallow at 17, and he rejected the idea when Rodriguez presented it. “When I grew up, I always wanted to go out there and have fun hitting,” Berrios says. “Play every day, not like a pitcher. We only pitch every fifth day, so I think that’s the tough part for a young kid to understand.”

Berrios sees that same bias in youth players across Puerto Rico.

The island’s success in developing position players created a cycle of sorts that spans generations. The children who grew up idolizing Roberto Clemente and Orlando Cepeda became heroes in their own right: Ivan Rodriguez, Roberto Alomar, Juan Gonzalez, Carlos Delgado, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada. The generation of Carlos Beltran and Yadier Molina followed, and then came the current trio of Correa, Francisco Lindor and Javy Baez — Berrios’s brother-in-law — who lifted baseball stardom on the island to new heights. Each generation sowed a seed in the minds of the next and the results have sprouted plenty of orange trees.

According to Baseball Reference, there have been 21 Puerto Rican-born position players who have generated at least 20 wins above replacement over their careers. On the pitching side, just one has crossed that threshold — Vazquez.

“It’s never been anything systematic,” says Eddie Romero, Red Sox executive VP and assistant general manager. “I think it just became much more attractive for kids to say, ‘Hey, you know what, I want to emulate this person at this position.’ And you know, most of those guys were position players.”

The topic is one that Romero, who was born in San Juan, frequently bats around with Cora. And he says they’re left scratching their heads. It’s different in Puerto Rico than the Dominican Republic, he notes, because there’s a larger overall baseball-playing population in the latter, where it’s the be-all-and-end-all sport. There’s more of a division of talent in Puerto Rico — track and field, volleyball and basketball are immensely popular on the island that, after all, is a U.S. territory that shares some cultural similarities with the mainland.

Cora, for his part, adored Alomar’s talent when he was growing up. Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo wanted to be like fellow Boricua Felix Millan, while Rivera admired shortstop Dave Concepcion, who was from Venezuela.

While there has always been a shortage of big-league pitchers for kids from the island to emulate, nowadays there’s a shortage of players — period. If you’re born in Puerto Rico, simply making it to the major leagues is harder now than it was for some previous generations. First off, it can be difficult for even promising talents to get noticed because remote parts of the island are not easily accessible, so there has been a reluctance among talent evaluators to visit certain areas unless they know a top-end prospect will be waiting.

“I don’t understand how all of a sudden there’s only a handful of teams that have full-time scouts back home,” Cora says. “Not every team has a full-time scout, so you have guys from the Florida area and now [Puerto Rico is] included in that area. So that guy will go once a month to see a player. You got to follow them every day, right?”

Puerto Rico has been included in the MLB Draft since 1989, meaning that instead of signing as amateur free agents — like many Boricuas did in the past and like players from fellow Caribbean nations Venezuela and the Dominican Republic do today — Puerto Rican high-schoolers are subject to the same rules as those on the U.S. mainland, where resources are more plentiful and development programs much stronger.

In recent years, the island’s representation in MLB has waned considerably — in 2002, there were 39 Puerto Rican-born players on opening day rosters; that number fell to 11 in 2012 and stood at 18 to begin this season.

One factor that could tip the scales back toward pitching is the proliferation of baseball academies in the nation over the past decade, institutions that teach the sport alongside a typical high-school curriculum. The first priority of most academies is to provide youth with a springboard to further educational opportunities. Additionally, the hope is that the academies, many of which have ties to former big-league and professional players, will not only produce more elite talent, but also more elite pitching talent. “They’re trying to start developing arms,” says Edgar Perez, a Red Sox scout who’s based in Puerto Rico. “The last few years, we’ve seen several top picks in the draft who are pitchers. But there’s still a long way to go.”

Adds Edwin Maldonado, executive director of the Carlos Beltran Baseball Academy: “We will never know how many players we could have in the big leagues if they decided early on to become pitchers. But they like to hit … It takes time to develop these kids — it’s a process. We’ll see the results in a few years and we’ll start seeing more pitchers coming. And I think guys are realizing earlier now that if you want a shot and want to have a career outside of high school and college, you got to make a decision. If it’s pitching, it’s pitching. And you got to make a decision when you’re a freshman in high school, instead of waiting for your senior year.

“Also, I think guys like Berrios having success in the big leagues is motivating [kids] to become pitchers.”

Berrios, of course, didn’t decide to become a full-time pitcher until his senior year. With Correa occupying shortstop on his travel ball team, he left to join a different club that promised more innings at his desired position. Before long, however, he finally came around to the reality that his arm was his golden ticket.

Rodriguez, the founder of Team Elite, recalls a game where Berrios faced off against his former club. Edwin Diaz, now closer for the New York Mets, was the opposing starter in the first contest of a double-header. A high-ranking executive from the Minnesota Twins was in the stands and watched as Berrios showed off an electric fastball and superior command. He allowed just four hard-hit balls, Rodriguez estimates, against one of the better under-18 lineups in Puerto Rico. Not long after, he was selected in the first round (32nd overall) by the Twins. “At the end, it turned out what everybody was seeing was right,” says Rodriguez. “That he was going to be a pitcher because he was a hell of a pitcher — a hell of a pitcher.”

Rodriguez might have once had a hard time convincing a player to transition to the mound, but it’s a different story these days. He worked with a right-hander named Elmer Rodriguez on Team Elite who was in a similar situation to the young Berrios — this kid loved to swing the bat and didn’t want to give it up, even though it was apparent his future was as a pitcher. There were times when the tall, slender youth would show up to the field for his pitching drills and ask if he could take a few swings in the cages, too. But when it came time for Rodriguez to sit down with him and have that tough conversation, the travel team boss was met with understanding. And it worked out, too, as the right-hander ended up being selected in the fourth round (No. 105 overall) by the Red Sox in this year’s MLB Draft.

“We’ve had Berrios and Edwin Diaz who have helped make kids think, Hey, you know, pitching’s not that bad,” says Rodriguez. “It helps that these pitchers have done that. And now kids understand that they can too. They believe what you’re telling them because there’s more credibility now when I talk than when I did that eight or nine years ago.”

Berrios acknowledges his status as role model back home and feels it’s his duty to try to help young players. He makes a point to visit Puerto Rican baseball clinics every off-season and will spend time with kids and their parents, offering tips about training, nutrition, recovery and pitch repertoire. Berrios even lets them in on his bullpen sessions. “He’s very accessible,” says Perez, the Red Sox scout. “He will help others in any situation that he can … He sees that things are changing for the better and there’s more pitchers, more people who want to pitch and want to be like him. Surely, it’s a motivation for him to keep helping these kids to get to that point.”

As of mid September, Berrios ranked 11th all-time in career WAR (9.95) among pitchers born in Puerto Rico. Javier Vazquez tops the list at 43.40, while reliever Roberto Hernandez occupies the second spot at 18.48. Of course, WAR is only one stat among many that can be used to compare players across generations, but it stands to reason that if the 27-year-old Berrios remains healthy and productive into his 30s, he could put a dent in the historical stats pages of Puerto Rican pitchers.

Acquired by the Blue Jays ahead of the trade deadline in July for two top prospects, Berrios is under team control through the 2022 campaign. After that, he could potentially command a massive contract — maybe the richest ever for a Puerto Rican pitcher — and that’s something important to consider when taking into account his influence, says Rodriguez.

“Berrios, for me is going to go down as the best pitcher that’s come out of the island — hands down,” says his former travel ball boss. “He has a long way to go, but if he continues what he’s doing, he’s going to be the best. The best pitcher, right now, you’re talking Javier Vazquez and I think he’s going to be way better than Javier Vazquez.

“Also, he’s going to be the highest-paid pitcher from the island,” he continues. “And Edwin Diaz will be the best closer we’ve ever had from the island. So, you got two guys that came from the same generation who are going to be at that level you have when you start talking about Pudge Rodriguez, Roberto Alomar and Juan Gonzalez — only on the pitching side.

“Hopefully that’s something that’s going to help future generation of pitchers in Puerto Rico.”

Photo Credits

Jalani Morgan/Sportsnet (4).