Twins phenom succeeding even when missing his spot
By Matt Kelly
Throughout baseball's history, hitters have said repeatedly that they try to look for "their pitch." One could argue a pitcher's main goal is to avoid giving hitters that pitch, and games are often won or lost depending on what hitters do with those rare opportunities.
Through three starts, including Wednesday's 4-3 win over the Orioles, the Twins' second-year phenom Jose Berrios has been sensational -- compiling a 3-0 record with a 1.66 ERA and 0.55 WHIP -- but he hasn't been perfect. In fact, Berrios has thrown more of his fastballsinside hitters' wheelhouses than outside them. The thing is, three of baseball's deepest offensive lineups -- the Indians, Rockies and O's -- haven't been able to do much of anything with those fastball mistakes. In those three starts, Berrios has allowed only two base hits on fastballs that landed within the zones classified by Statcast™ as the middle of the plate.
"He was electric," Rockies outfielder Ian Desmond said after Berrios twirled 7 2/3 scoreless innings against Colorado last Thursday. "It looked a lot like Jose Fernandez, to be honest. Explosive, quick heater, and with that sweeping curveball that he can turn into a slider, too."
Here's a look at Berrios' pitch location Wednesday at Camden Yards, when he tossed 6 1/3 innings of three-run baseball against a Baltimore lineup that's known to crush mistakes. The orange, green, black, pink and purple dots are all results that are favorable to the pitcher, and it's hard not to notice how many of them are right over the heart of the plate.
The Orioles were able to connect for three solo home runs off Berrios, two of them coming in the seventh as he surpassed the 90-pitch mark. But two of them came off hanging curveballs, and the other -- hit by Chris Davis -- came off a heater on the inside corner. Berrios' fastballs over the plate remained largely untouched, dominating the Orioles with deception rather than velocity.
"There's some sneakiness to it, and it plays up a little bit," Twins catcher Chris Gimenez said of Berrios' fastball. "Even though it's usually 92-93 [mph], I feel like it plays up a little higher, like it's 95-96. Whether it's his delivery of the pitch or his release -- he's got some good pull-down at the very end with the snap off his wrist -- the sneakiness for me is what's working."
Twins manager Paul Molitor added that the key for Berrios is finding his spot with the fastball, but it appears anywhere in the zone is "his spot" so far. That includes Wednesday's start, when the righty tallied a combined 31 called strikes and foul balls, many of them coming in places one wouldn't expect to get away with against a lineup filled with sluggers such as Davis, Adam Jones, Manny Machado and Mark Trumbo.
We hear so much about getting hitters to chase pitches that start inside and run outside, but having the type of stuff that can roll right through opponents' favorite areas is an underrated skill -- particularly because so few pitchers can actually succeed at doing so consistently. Peruse a list of the pitchers who have succeeded while operating over the heart of the plate in recent years, and you'll see some names you may have heard before:
Lowest batting average allowed on pitches over middle zones, Statcast™ Era (2015-present) Minimum 250 at-bats ending on middle-zone pitches
No one knows yet whether Berrios, who has generated plenty of hype in recent years, can reach the level of those pitchers. The hope is that Berrios' fastball command -- an issue that plagued him during his first taste of big league action last year -- will continue to improve. But in the meantime, it might not matter where Berrios throws his heater, as long as it's somewhere over the plate. Until hitters can prove they can catch up to it, Berrios may just continue to send them back to the dugout shaking their heads.
"He's been working hard on attacking the zone more and not getting himself into bad counts," Gimenez said, "and he did a good job of that today."
Matt Kelly is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @mattkellyMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.