I do not think anybody would oppose me when saying that last year was a massive disappointment for José Berríos. Coming off a career-best 3.52 ERA in 2021 that saw him traded from Minnesota to Toronto, the Jays handed Berrios a seven-year $131 million extension.
The 2022 season started with Berrios failing to get out of the first inning, and things did not get much better moving forward. Berrios posted a 5.23 ERA while seeing his strikeout rate plummet below 20%. He looked lost for much of the season and was one of the bigger fantasy baseball disappointments.
Entering 2023, Berrios’ draft price has never been lower. Many in the industry are feeling burned by his 2022 performance and are avoiding him at all costs. However, like stocks you want to buy low and sell high. According to NFC ADP, you can draft Berrios at an extreme discount outside the top 230 picks. So, should you be buying in and hoping for a bounce-back? Let’s dig deeper to figure out exactly what went wrong in 2022 and if we should expect improvement this season.
José Berríos’ 2022 Disaster
Everything that could go wrong did go wrong for Berrios in 2022. Throughout his career, he has never had sparkling peripherals, but there has always been something exciting about his profile. Maybe it is the charisma with which he carries himself or the hype he generated as a prospect. Regardless, Berrios has always been able to provide solid even if unspectacular results from a fantasy perspective.
In a way, Berrios seemed safe. Through a full season, Berrios had never posted an ERA above 4.00 and his FIP was never above 4.06.
Then 2022 happened. Berrios’ ERA ballooned to 5.23, and the peripherals followed in a way. His FIP increased to 4.55, but that is still significantly lower than his ERA. Berrios’ xFIP was 4.21 which is in line with his career xFIP of 4.18. His pitch indicators do not notice a dramatic shift in talent for Berrios which makes this season even more uncharacteristic.
One of the biggest issues from Berrios’ season was surrendering home runs. From 2017-2021, Berrios averaged 1.09 HR/9. Thanks to a heavy dosage of sinkers, Berrios has always done an above-average job at keeping the ball in the yard. Berrios continued to throw his sinker in 2022, but his HR/9 jumped up to 1.52. Hitters were teeing off on his pitches which resulted in career-worst exit velocity and barrel rates.
Not only did his home run rate jump way up, but the strikeout rate went way down. Berrios has never posted high strikeout rates, but they were typically around league average. His 2022 numbers were below the MLB average as contact rates against him soared.
Not only were batters making more contact, but they were getting on base with this contact. From 2017-2021 opposing batters hit just .232 off Berrios. Last season, batters hit .286 with an xBA of .275. One potential cause for the sudden decline is the move from Minnesota to Toronto. Toronto is a hitter-friendly ballpark with a 101-hit park factor compared to the 98 in Minnesota. Toronto also has a much higher home run factor than Minnesota which could be part of the reason for Berrios’ recent struggles.
This all sounds terrible. You thought you were going to be reading a piece about why Berrios is going to bounce back this season. Well, in order to get to the good, we first have to be aware of the bad. 2022 was a disaster but hold out hope because there is reason to be optimistic in 2023. Just keep reading.
How Luck Played a Role
Part of Berrios’ struggles come down to just flat-out bad luck. Last season opposing batters posted a .328 BABIP against him. The only pitcher to surrender a higher BABIP against was teammate Kevin Gausman.
There were only nine pitchers in all of baseball to allow a BABIP over .300 last year and Berrios was toward the top of this list. According to PitcherList’s Hit Luck metric, Berrios gave up the most hits over expected last year with 42. Yes, the park factor will result in more hits than Berrios used to give up in Minnesota, but we should not expect this poor luck to continue.
Toronto also made it a point to go out and improve their defense this year. They traded for Daulton Varsho, who is excellent in the outfield, and signed Kevin Kiermaier, who is one of the best defensive outfielders in the game. Boasting one of the best defensive outfields in the game is a surefire way to help your pitchers experience better luck.
Another potential excuse for the poor performance was the hitter quality that Berrios faced. Last season was his first full year playing in the vaunted AL East. This is quite a step up from the AL Central (no disrespect meant). PLV also has a hitter performance metric.
The average hitter performance faced by a pitcher is -0.9. Berrios’ average: 38.9. This is in another universe compared to the MLB average. Now in 2023, MLB has made a transition to a more balanced schedule. Every team plays every team decreasing the number of times Berrios faces AL East opponents. Berrios should not be expected to face the highest-quality hitters again in 2023 which is bound to lead to improvements.
Adjusting José Berríos’ Pitch Mix
If there was one thing that was obvious from last season, it was that Berrios’ four-seam fastball was not working. In fact, the pitch has not been effective since 2019. Berrios posted run values of 7 and 5 in 2020 and 2021 before losing all control of the pitch in 2022. Berrios’ four-seam fastball posted a run value of 17 last season, the sixth worst in baseball. The pitchers that Berrios was better than?
- Madison Bumgarner, Josiah Gray, Austin Gomber, Kris Bubic, Kyle Bradish
Not exactly the company you want to be in. The interesting part is that according to PLV, the pitch was above average to righties and exactly average to lefties.
His PLA on the pitch (ERA adjusted PLV) was 3.89. Not the best fastball in the world, but far from one of the worst in the league. So, what gives? Why were opponents able to bat .349 with a .618 slugging percentage if the pitch was better than average?
The answer is inconsistency. When Berrios missed with his four-seam fastball, he missed badly. As you can see from the PLV images above, Berrios threw a high percentage of fastballs that graded out below a two on the PLV scale.
The amazing Kyle Bland was able to pull the data and find that 4.7% of Berrios’ fastballs were graded as really bad. This is equivalent to about 1.3% of his pitches. If he throws about 100 pitches each game this is one REALLY bad fastball every game. Opposing batters punished these pitches throughout the season.
In comparison, Shane Bieber’s four-seam fastball graded out very similarly on the PLV scale. However, Bieber’s four-seam posted a run value of one compared to 17. Looking at his PLV chart, it is clear that although the pitch is not blowing anybody away, Bieber is far more consistent and avoids the big mistakes that Berrios got pushed with.
Berrios lacks a consistent feel for this pitch and instead of continuing to throw it, he should focus on the pitches that he has consistent success with. For one, his sinker is far superior to his four-seam fastball.
As mentioned above, the long ball was one of the biggest reasons that Berrios struggled last season. Batters hit a home run on one out of every 68 four-seamers that Berrios threw.
Meanwhile, they only hit a home run on one out of every 117 sinkers he threw. The sinker is a better fastball for Berrios and one that he has more control over. The pitch posted a negative four-run value last year and PLV is a big fan(5.12 average rating). Time for Berrios to ditch the four-seam and run with the sinker.
The other pitch that Berrios needs to prioritize is his curveball. This might be an even bigger deal than ditching the four-seam and has 2022 data to back it up. Berrios’ statistics show a stark difference between games when the curveball was his most used pitch and games in which it was not. The comparison can be seen in the table below.
The ERA was over three and a half runs lower in the 14 games during which Berrios relied on his curveball. The strikeouts were up, the walks were down, and the home runs were down. This is everything we want to see from a pitcher and the curveball usage is the common denominator for when his success was occurring.
Berrios has a good set of pitches. Every pitch in his arsenal grades out as above average according to PLV—he just needs to tweak his usage rates. The sinker and curveball need to be leaned on throughout each of Berrios’ starts if he wants to bounce back. These are clearly his best pitches and the pitches he is most comfortable throwing. His four-seam fastball is not a bad pitch, but the high frequency of mistakes should result in Berrios relying on that less in 2023.
Notable Spring Training Adjustments
Berrios has only made one Spring Training start thus far, but the adjustments were notable. During his two-inning scoreless appearance, Berrios relied heavily on both his curveball/slurve and sinker. He only threw 36 pitches, so it is possible this was just a small sample, but those two pitches accounted for 78% of the pitches he threw.
The four-seam was also used, but only 11% of the time. This is exactly how Berrios’ pitch mix should look. Hopefully, this signals a deliberate change in attack versus a meaningless Spring Training game.
Berrios also was working exclusively from the stretch during this outing. His starting point looks completely different from his stretch last year.
2023 Spring Training Stretch:
Just quickly scanned thru José Berríos' outing today…
Here's what stands out…
A mini #BlueJays ⚾️?…
Let's start here: The new setup looked really good, and I think one of the ideas behind it is increasing effectiveness of the sinker. pic.twitter.com/PfHOWJNgu3
— Chris Black (@DownToBlack) February 28, 2023
In 2022, Berrios was starting from an open stance to the hitter. Now in 2023, he is working on the exact opposite. He is closed off to the batter which can help provide deception in his motion. Berrios likely found himself pulling off the baseball which was resulting in control issues and this is an attempt to correct that.
There is a chance Berrios was working exclusively from the stretch to test out his new starting point. However, there is also a chance Berrios is ditching the wind-up altogether. Last season he posted a 1.52 WHIP from the wind-up and a 1.30 WHIP from the stretch. Berrios struggled with his command and control while working from the wind-up and moving to the stretch might help him remain more consistent. This is something to continue monitoring throughout the spring.
José Berríos 2023 Fantasy Baseball Outlook
Heading into 2023, we should be expecting a bounce-back season from José Berríos. He was one of (if not the) unluckiest pitchers in baseball last season. The combination of improvements made by Toronto along with the schedule adjustments made by the league should help his luck even out next season.
The best part of Berrios’ profile is that we are not just relying on luck. There are clear and obvious ways for Berrios to improve his pitch mix. He flashed these adjustments at times during the 2022 season and was fantastic when relying on the curveball.
Now he has had a full off-season to work on getting more comfortable with this. Already one Spring Training start in, and we have already seen these adjustments in action. This is not just blind hope from fantasy analysts but is something that Berrios has already shown signs of implementing. Berrios’ current ADP makes this a low-risk investment.
The upside and reason for optimism are there making now the perfect time to invest. Buy José Berríos for 2023 in fantasy baseball.
Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)