‘That’s My Pitch’: The Secondary Key To José Berríos’ Success – Sports Illustrated

Entering Tuesday, opposing batters hit .392 against José Berríos’ fastball, the highest mark of his career.

That may seem like a problem, and it certainly is, but it’s mainly a symptom of the real issue through Berríos’ first seven starts in 2022: locating the curve.

Berríos has thrown his curveball in the zone less than ever before this year, with an in-zone rate below 40% entering Tuesday. Struggling to throw his secondary pitch for a consistent strike, Berríos couldn’t convince hitters to chase out of the zone for needed whiffs. His misses forced him to turn to the fastball, and the fastball was getting smoked—until Tuesday.

“He commanded the zone, threw his breaking pitches more for strikes,” manager Charlie Montoyo said. “He was able to keep them off balance.”

After missing with three curveballs to J.P. Crawford in the first inning, Berríos retook the mound, shaking out his shoulder before coming set for the full-count pitch.

With a hesitation at the top of his windup, the 27-year-old pushed to home, going back to the curve that alluded him thrice prior. The final breaking ball, though, was painted perfectly on the inside corner, drawing a hopeless strikeout swing from Seattle’s shortstop.

Scroll to Continue

Recommended Articles

Before Tuesday, hitters were spitting on Berríos’ signature sweeping curve, whiffing almost five percent less on the pitch than last year. He was forced to lean on the four-seamer after missing with the secondary pitches, posting a career-high fastball usage for needed strikes in his first seven starts. Instead of strikes, though, the heater was launched back into play, resulting in scary hard contact. Ahead of Tuesday’s start, Berríos had an expected ERA of 7.37, one of the worse hard-hit rates in baseball, and a repertoire not generating many whiffs.

Berríos' in-zone rate with his four pitches ahead of Tuesday's start against the Mariners

Berríos’ in-zone rate with his four pitches ahead of Tuesday’s start against the Mariners

So, against the Mariners, Berríos brought his secondary offering back into the zone. When he’s at his best, the righty throws his curveball in the zone around 45% of the time, but his season rate was below 40% before Tuesday. When he can’t get the curve for strikes enough, Berríos loses that perfect balance that keeps hitters guessing, and more importantly chasing. On Tuesday, the curveball was a strike 41% of the time. The location still alluded Berríos at times, but he found it when needed.

“I think that’s my pitch, my breaking ball, when I have it,” Berríos said. “I felt good with my breaking ball and also my fastball command.”

Toronto’s pitching coach, Pete Walker, jogged out of the Jays dugout with pace as the infield closed in on Berríos in the second inning after a missed full-count curveball gave Mike Ford a free pass and loaded up the bases.

After Walker returned to the dugout rail, Berríos drew his needed one-out grounder on a single pitch, inducing a bouncer to Bo Bichette. The ball was gobbled up, spat out to second base, and turned over to a celebrating Vladimir Guerrero Jr. at first for the double play. As Berríos walked to Toronto’s dugout, he met Santiago Espinal and Bichette with grateful first bumps. Six innings later, it was the infielders’ turn to high-five Berríos as he walked off the mound with seven-plus shutout innings.

Berríos got his share of ovations leaving the Rogers Centre mound late last year. Back in his 2021 form on Tuesday night, he got another standing applause. Berríos wasn’t perfect, but with a few more curveballs and changeups finding the zone, his balance was restored.