With the state of the pitching landscape, moments like last Thursday night, when Twins’ prospect Jose Berrios finally flourished in the major leagues force all fantasy owners turn a very watchful eye north to Minnesota, with a club that has situated itself atop the AL Central heading into Sunday’s action.
After two starts, Berrios has 15.1 innings of work under his belt with 15 strikeouts and two walks. Good for a sub 1.00 ERA and a FIP, that isn’t as good as Kenley Jansen’s -0.95, but will be buoyed by the advanced control always touted as a strength. How much of his current line is indicative of what we should actually expect is more of a puzzle after how dominant he was at home against the Rockies. Tampering expectations might come because his matchup was the second of a double header, and despite the Rockies hold on the NL West, their WRC+ in both home and road games is sub 90, suggesting they might be playing a bit over their heads.
Now that I’ve gotten the two most obvious points to calm us down from Ian Desmond’s comment that Berrios’ stuff looked like Jose Fernandez, I still can’t get over the fact that Berrios had 20 swinging strikes, seven on his curveball, 12 on his fourseamer, and a lone whiff to his sinker. This was basically double the amount of whiffs he had on his fastball and curveball independently, at any point in his major league career. Needless to say, this was a glimpse at the peak of the Berrios mountain. Watching this start, it was painfully obvious that the Rockies had no chance on his curveball, which he threw near 35% of the time and generated about 20% swinging strikes on.
Thursday was a game of firsts for Berrios, but as with any player that storms onto the scene, taking a step back to look at what is actually possible moving forward is extremely important.
Keep in mind, on Mother’s Day we saw Berrios go into Progressive Field and dismantle an Indians club in a very different way. In that start, Berrios relied much more on his fastball (60%+ usage), mixing in his changeup at a higher rate compared to his curve. The result in both cases was success, and more notably 7+ innings of work, but if his Mother’s Day outing is the mix of pitches that Berrios would tend to favor more, we’re looking at a strikeout rate lower than his 28%, or more reliably near 8 K/9. That suggests more balls in play, less dependable outcomes, and a starter at the end of the day is probably a lot less appealing than the Aaron Nola or Rich Hill route of high curveball usage that can juice up one’s swinging strikes depending on how good of a pitch it is.
At the moment, we’re stuck wondering just where to put Berrios projections because of this very point. If Thursday was an indicator the increased curveball usage is the new path, I would be irrationally excited, but if it’s not, we’re getting what Amir Garrett did three starts into his major league career when he punched out 12 Orioles over seven strong innings. An encouraging start for Garrett at the time, but one that comes at the front end of a sample instead of mixed into other results and going unnoticed. For comparison to a few great starts at the back end of a sample, take Jeff Samardzija, who has struck out 41 batters and walked only one over his last five outings, and somehow is still owned in less than 70% of ESPN leagues. Yes, that’s a 41/1 K:BB, which is about as must-add as you can ever get. The simple fact is owners are much less convinced when it comes after five outings of a 4.55 FIP and and the inability to strand runners, than pushed to the forefront like we’ve seen with Berrios and another arm I’ve recently become interested in, Mike Clevinger.
Let’s get into some rest of season numbers for Berrios and where it stacks up in the league.
Berrios’ next start is in Camden, versus an Orioles team that has been swinging well over the last two weeks (125 WRC+), and the glorious Streamonator isn’t looking at that with too much confidence. Rest of season, Razzball’s projections are giving Berrios a 4.38 ERA and a 1.34 WHIP, good for a barely positive dollar value ($0.7) and 96 Ks over 103 innings, which is more positive than my guess he edges more towards the 8 K/9 baseline as doesn’t eclipse 30% curveball usage. My projection would probably be something more along the lines of a 3.8-4.0 ERA with a 1.20 WHIP and lower K numbers, say 90 Ks over 103 innings. I’m not buying the 9 K/9 potential this season, but think he’ll be able to display good enough control to have a shot at below a 1.20 WHIP. That’s not bad, but from sifting around our projections here and elsewhere, Berrios is more like a starter you play matchups with than a must start option.
I’ll again qualify this by saying I want to keep a close eye on the curveball usage. That was the reason Ian Desmond was quick to compare Berrios to Fernandez, as it’s inarguably a great pitch. I would venture to guess all the upside we want is hidden in the eventual disclosure of how he wants to attack hitters, and the greater scheme won’t be unearthed for a few more starts. If you have an owner in your league willing to pay top 40 starter value for Berrios, I wouldn’t have a problem pulling the trigger. I’ll be watching his start in Camden closely to see where the trend of pitch usage is heading.
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