Designing an Ace — Jose Berrios

Courtesy of the Superior Telegram

Deep in the heart of Minnesota, while watching the snow fall, I came to a realization. No big-name pitcher is going to willingly come to Minnesota without forcing the Twins to grossly overpay. As many Minnesotans know, just because the calendar reads April, it doesn’t mean we're out of winter yet. The same goes for October. If the Twins were to make a deep playoff push, late October night games are not the most forgiving. Sometimes reaching temperatures in the mid-30 degree range at night. This poses a major problem for pitchers. Velocity and grip are two major things affected by cold weather, and with 20+ other clubs that either boasts a bigger payroll, have more optimal weather to pitch in, or both, it's hard to imagine the Twins landing a top tier starter.

However, that doesn’t mean we can’t develop from within. In this article, the guy I'm targeting is Jose Berrios. By no means is this an inditement of Berrios since he has been a solid piece in the rotation since his first full season. What I am getting at is that he could possibly lead Minnesota’s rotation given a few changes to his pitches. The following Driveline Edge video will help us visualize what Berrios is currently working with.

Current Pitches

Jose Berrios’s 2020 Pitches

As is, Berrios’s arsenal isn’t bad but isn’t top tier. He has three pitches that have some degree of arm-side break (four-seam, sinker, changeup) and one pitch that breaks glove-side (sweeping curveball). I’ll start my suggestions with the four-seam and work my way down the list from there.

Four-Seam Fastball

Coming in at 94.5 mph, this is Berrios’s hardest thrown fastball. With its average spin direction of 1:11, spin efficiency of 98%, and spin rate of 2195 rpm, it creates slightly below average carry (15.1"), with above-average arm-side run (10.8"). I would only suggest a slight tweak to this pitch. Getting his spin direction to 1:00 would create a fastball with slightly above average carry, allowing him to create a flatter vertical approach angle to the top of the strike zone. He can do this by leveraging his lower release point, above-average velocity, and his newly added carry on his four-seam. Given what we currently know about vertical approach angle, if a pitcher can flatten it out (closer to 0 degrees), it may be in their best interest to do so.

Flatter VAA (closer to zero degrees) creates more swings and misses.

Changing a spin direction isn’t really all that hard to do. Especially by only 11 minutes. With access to Edgertronic cameras and Rapsodo devices (now fairly common to see in MLB bullpens), it’s all about finding a cue that creates the most optimal result on those devices and hammering that cue. A few cues I have found success with are “stay behind the baseball” and “pull down on the seams”.

Sinker

If there were no tweaks to this pitch it still would be a solid offering. But I’m looking to get the most out of Jose, so I’m going to suggest another slight tweak. Currently, his sinker sits at 94.0 mph, with a spin direction of 1:51, spin efficiency of 99%, and spin rate of 2124 rpm. Like the four-seam, I'm going to suggest changing the spin direction. However, were going to tweak it in the opposite direction. Instead of making it more vertical, I would like to see him get slightly more horizontal with it by working on getting the spin direction to around 2:00. This will create a sinker with even more above-average arm-side run than he already has, as well as create more separation from his four-seam in terms of movement. Another side effect of this will also allow him to create more “drop” on the pitch as there will be less backspin on a 2:00 spin direction pitch compared to his current spin direction of 1:51.

Since this is only a change of 9 minutes, I would classify this as another small tweak (similar to the four-seam). Just like the four-seam, I would suggest breaking out the Edgertronic camera and Rapsodo to find and re-enforce cues that produce the best results. A cue I have found success with for this type of situation is “roll over the baseball”.

Changeup

Berrio’s changeup has come a long way from when he first started throwing it. But I believe the best has yet to come. This pitch will take a little more work than his fastballs, however, I do believe it's just a few minor tweaks.

Berrios’s changeup comes in at about 85 mph, with a spin direction of 2:22, spin efficiency of 87%, and spin rate of 1538 rpm. I am a big fan of his ability to throw his changeup hard, yet keep the spin rate low. This helps induce drop and generally leads to better results. But what I think will make Berrios’s changeup even better is the ability to get more horizontal and more spin efficient with it. By getting to a spin direction of 2:30 and spin efficiency of 95% his changeup will still get similar amounts of drop while increasing arm-side run by almost 3 inches. Berrios has the ability to throw a sinking changeup (you can read about them here). They’re the type of changeup that you can throw to get a swing and miss in any count. These changes would only improve his sinking changeup, therefore increasing swings and misses.

By now you should know I'm going to suggest he head to the Edgertronic camera and Rapsodo. The cues I would suggest are “pronate earlier”, “roll over the baseball”, and “throw it with your ring finger”.

Curveball

While Berrios’s curveball is very gif-able and quite a beautiful pitch, over a longer season I don’t believe he will see the same success it had in 2020. In today’s game, hitters catch on to longer, loopier stuff like a Berrios curveball much easier. Another big point to realize is that it’s his only pitch that breaks glove-side, so it’s much easier to see that the curveball might stand to need a little help. But first, let's get to know his curve a little better.

It’s a harder thrown curve, which definitely helps him, coming in at 83.3 mph. Couple that with his spin direction of 8:41, spin efficiency of 82.0%, and spin rate of 2353 rpm, it turns into a classic sweeper (you can read about sweepers here). I’m not saying this is a bad pitch, I just think there could be a few adjustments made to make this pitch better fit his arsenal. This also will set him up for something I’ll talk about later in the article.

What I suggest is creating more backspin by shifting the spin direction from 8:41 to 8:00. Even though I would like to see curves have less sweep and more vertical break, I don’t think Berrios could move closer to a more vertical curveball than 8:00 given his arm angle. With this change, I also allowed him to lose a little velocity. Even at 80.0 mph, this could still be a really good pitch. This should give him more drop (overall and spin induced) on his curve and theoretically increase whiffs.

Along with the Edgertronic and Rapsodo, I would suggest finding the best cue that allows him to manipulate his wrist angle to be more vertical at ball release. Cues that I have found work are “throw the back of the hand”, “get in front of the ball”, and “karate chop the zone vertically”. Switching to a knuckle-curve grip may help as well.

BONUS — Add a Slider

Anyone who has worked with me, knows I love designing sliders. Not just any slider though, low-spin efficiency sliders. And in this case, I really believe Berrios could benefit from throwing a slider. I may be biased, but I cannot think of an ace that 1) does not have a slider and 2) doesn't use it as a strikeout pitch. And contrary to popular belief, Berrios doesn’t classify as a strikeout pitcher as most aces do. Adding a low spin efficiency slider would help solve those problems, and only make his current arsenal better. Sliders tunnel much better than curveballs off changeups (a pitch Berrios throws well), and any fastball that isn’t just in the upper parts of the strike zone. A slider would also give Berrios another pitch that breaks glove-side, so he wouldn’t have to rely on the curveball to be his only glove-side breaking pitch.

As for my suggestion, I start everyone learning a slider with a goal of 10:30 spin direction and 35% spin efficiency. Most pitchers are able to pick up on this within a few pitch design sessions, and then we try to push the spin efficiency as low as possible and spin direction as close to 9:00 as possible while maintaining no more than a 10 mph difference from their fastball. But for now, we will just use 10:30 and 35% as our benchmarks.

Unlike every other pitch in Berrios’s arsenal, we want to create a pitch that has low spin efficiency. Some of the best sliders in the game sit below 35% efficiency (Gerrit Cole slider to name one). This is what gives the slider “late break” (you can read about it in this article under “Gyro Spin and Movement”). But for now, just remember, the lower the spin efficiency is, the more late break it will have.

Now how do you create a pitch like this? As we lower the spin efficiency, the baseball starts to spin like a football, so I like to tell pitchers to “throw it like a football”. Another cue I like to use is “pull down on the side of the baseball”. As I said earlier, 10:30 spin direction and 35% spin efficiency isn’t all that hard of a goal to meet, so finding the cue that would work for Jose and hammering it home with the Edgertronic camera and Rapsodo isn’t all that tall of a task.

As an added bonus, as part of my Pitch Design services, I usually give out location recommendations, and I’ll do that here with Jose’s slider as well.

This heatmap is pulled from successful major league sliders that are similar to the slider I designed for Jose. You’ll notice it's concentrated at the bottom of the zone on Jose’s glove-side. This allows Jose to target the center of the strike zone, and let the slider’s break do the work for the best results.

Suggested Pitches

Now that I’ve laid out my tweaks and suggestions, we can use Driveline Edge again to get a look at Jose Berrios’s newly designed pitches.

Jose Berrios’s 2021 Suggested Pitches

At the end of the day, I think the most important suggestion is adding a slider. It gives him a true swing and miss/strikeout pitch that he is currently lacking. Other than that, the rest are small tweaks to make his arsenal slightly better. To sum up the changes: the four-seam would get slightly more carry, the sinker would get slightly more arm-side run and drop, the changeup would fade even more, and the curveball would be more vertical.

While we may not get a top tier arm from outside the organization in Minnesota, this is one way to do it from the inside.

If you have any feedback or found mistakes, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me. If you’d like to keep up with my work, feel free to follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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