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  • Jose Berrios has looked unhittable in his two starts since he was promoted from Triple A. The touted prospect finally appears to be ready for the big leagues thanks to his improved command.
By Michael Beller
May 22, 2017

Jose Berrios made the best start of his young career last week, striking out 11 while allowing just two hits in 7 2/3 shutout innings. He has made two outings this season and held his opponents, the Indians and Rockies, to two hits apiece in 15 1/3 total frames with 15 strikeouts against two walks. In other words, he has pitched like the future ace many expect him to be.

It wasn’t this easy for Berrios last year. I wrote about his 2016 struggles after his great start against the Rockies last week. We won’t go over that in detail again here. Instead, we’ll simply say that it was an unwelcome reception for Berrios in his first stint in the majors. Through two starts this season, though, it appears the growing pains were a blessing in disguise. Berrios learned how to deal with adversity and make adjustments in the majors. Those early struggles are helping him thrive this year.

Now that a few days have passed since Berrios dominated Rockies, we can examine how he did it. Berrios threw a career-high 106 pitches in the outing, 72 of which were strikes. He induced 20 whiffs, six ground balls and two popups. The Rockies hit four balls with an exit velocity greater than 90 mph, but only two went for hits, and those were both singles. Any way you look at the start, it was Berrios’s night to shine.

Berrios leaned heavily on his four-seam fastball and curveball, throwing 51 four-seamers and 37 curveballs with a smattering of two-seamers and changeups mixed in. His four-seamer sat at 93–95 mph all night and was the foundation for success. He opened with the pitch against 19 of the 27 batters he faced and recorded a first-pitch strike in 15 of those plate appearances.

Berrios’s ability to get ahead with the four-seamer wasn’t its only striking feature. It was also incredibly effective for a straight, albeit hard, fastball. Berrios got 12 whiffs with the four-seamer, which is Max Scherzer and Noah Syndergaard territory for a fastball. He wasn’t even all that fine with it, illustrated by the following zone profile, which comes courtesy of Statcast.

Berrios did a good job of elevating the pitch when he needed to, but nine center-cut four-seamers is typically a good way to get in trouble against an MLB lineup, especially one with as much pop as Colorado’s. More often than not, Berrios was just better than the Rockies hitters, beating them to the spot with his heater. Here’s an example against Carlos Gonzalez.

And here’s another against Ian Desmond.

The offering to Desmond was Berrios’s 91st pitch of the night, and it checked in at 94 mph. That he was still able to reach back for mid-90s in the seventh inning as he’s approached 100 pitches shows how effective he can remain deep in games. Blowing middle-middle fastballs past power hitters with regularity is yet another mark of a potential ace, and Berrios did that time and time again last week.

From there, he was able to take most hitters exactly where he wanted them, and that path, more often than not, included the curveball.

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In a word, Berrios’s curve was electric last week. Rockies hitters were 0-for-4 against the pitch when putting it play, and whiffed at it seven times. The highest exit velocity off Berrios’s curve was 87.5 mph, but that resulted in nothing more than a lazy popout by Pat Valaika. Five of his 11 strikeouts came with the curve on strike three.

The best thing about Berrios’s curve is that it’s not just a chase pitch. Sure, it can be that, measuring up to any good curve in that department. Sorry, Ian Desmond, but we’re going to have to pick on you again.

That movement will produce a lot of whiffs for Berrios, but the best breaking balls are the ones that are equally effective in the zone as they are out of it. Berrios broke off one of his best curveballs of the night in a 1–2 count against Nolan Arenado. After a fastball-curveball-fastball sequencing, Arenado was completely fooled.

That’s the soon-to-be 23-year-old Berrios freezing one of the most fearsome power hitters in the majors with a curveball. That doesn’t happen by accident.

As impressive as all this is, we’ve yet to see Berrios’s coup de grace. That, in my opinion, came in the third inning with Charlie Blackmon at the plate. Blackmon, of course, has been one of the most productive hitters in the game since becoming a regular in 2014. Over the last four seasons, he’s slashing .301/.354/.490, and he elevated his game from All-Star to fringe MVP candidate last year. Blackmon lit up righties to the tune of .320/.376/.596 last season, and has continued that apace this season.

All that meant nothing to Berrios, who put away Blackmon on three pitches. He started him out with a fastball spotted perfectly on the outer third.

On the 0–1 pitch, Berrios returns with another heater. This one, too, is in the zone on the outer third, but elevated. It’s all Blackmon can do just to foul it back.

At this point, Berrios is in total control, and he knows it. This was Blackmon’s second plate appearance of the game. Through the first two pitches of this one, he had seen five four-seamers and a changeup. That made the 0-2 offering an opportune time for Berrios to show his curve to Blackmon for the first time.

Blackmon, who’s likely on his way to another All-Star Game this year, didn’t have a chance. Two starts into this season, Berrios is showing the ace potential he has had since the Twins made him the 32nd overall pick in the 2012 amateur draft. He’s not going to making any midseason trips to Triple-A Rochester this season like he did a year ago. With those struggles behind him, Berrios is ready to make the first big leap in his career.

Pitchers to watch this week

Kyle Hendricks, Cubs

After a rough beginning to the season, Hendricks has found a rhythm over the last month. He has allowed two or fewer runs in each of his last five starts, tossing at least six innings in four of them. His last two were in less than optimal pitching conditions, as well. He held the Rockies to two runs on four hits with seven strikeouts in 6 1/3 innings in a tough-luck loss at Coors Field two weeks ago. Last week, in a game at Wrigley Field that felt like mid-July with 80-degree temperatures and 20-mph winds blowing straight out to left field, he limited the Reds to two runs on six hits in six frames. He hasn’t been striking out as many hitters as he did last year, but he’s back to inducing the kind of weak contact that made him a Cy Young candidate last year. Hendricks is scheduled to start against the Giants on Monday and Dodgers on Saturday.

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Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers

Kershaw is always a pitcher to watch, but he hasn’t been featured in this section of the Pitching Report since the second week of the season, so it’s time for us to circle back to him. He has been quietly dominant this season, totaling a 2.15 ERA, 2.90 FIP, 0.89 WHIP and 62 strikeouts in 62 2/3 innings, but we’ve yet to see a truly Kershaw-ian performance from him yet. You know, one of those 15-strikeout, one-hit shutouts. The Cardinals and Cubs, Kershaw’s opponents this week, should consider themselves on notice.

Johnny Cueto, Giants

I wrote about Cueto’s terrible April at the beginning of this month, searching for an answer for one of the worst month-long stretches of his excellent career. Things have gotten better for him in May, though we still haven’t seen him get all the way back. He has a 3.86 ERA, 1.11 WHIP and 28 strikeouts in as many innings across four starts this month. He had a couple of nice turns against the Reds, allowing four runs with 16 strikeouts in 15 combined innings, but was knocked around by the Dodgers in his last trip to the mound. He surrendered five runs on eight hits in six innings in that start, taking his third loss of the year. Still, he seems to be trending in the right direction. Cueto will start against the Cubs on Tuesday and Braves on Sunday this week.

Danny Duffy, Royals

Hey, here’s another pitcher I’ve written about in depth this season. Duffy got his moment in the SI spotlight last week, when I explored the reasons for his declining strikeout rate. That same night, he went out and fanned 10 batters in seven innings in a win over the Yankees. Duffy’s velocity was still lacking, but he was inducing more swings on chase pitches, something he excelled at last year. He’s set for two starts this week, taking on the Yankees again on Tuesday and the Indians on Sunday.

Chris Sale, Red Sox

Sale struck out 10 A’s in seven innings on Friday, his eighth straight start with double-digit strikeouts. That tied the record he already shared with Pedro Martinez, making him the first pitcher in MLB history with two such streaks. He has been superb in his first season in Boston, pitching to a 2.19 ERA, 1.63 FIP and 0.79 WHIP with 95 strikeouts against 13 walks in 65 2/3 innings. He’ll go for a record-setting ninth straight start with at least 10 strikeouts against the
Rangers on Wednesday.

Prospect Watch

Jose De Leon, Rays

De Leon has spent most of the season on the DL with an elbow injury, but he took a significant step toward the majors last week. In his second start with High-A Charlotte, De Leon tossed five shutout, hitless innings, striking out five while walking two. De Leon will make his next start at Triple-A Durham, but he may not be there for long. A few strong turns will likely result in him getting back to the majors.

De Leon, 24 years old, made four starts with the Dodgers last season. He totaled a 6.35 ERA and 1.53 WHIP with 15 strikeouts in 17 innings, but he was excellent at the Triple-A level before his cup of coffee with the Dodgers. In 16 starts with Triple-A Oklahoma City, De Leon amassed a 2.61 ERA, 0.94 WHIP and 111 strikeouts in 86 1/3 innings. The Dodgers sent him to the Rays in the offseason for Logan Forsythe, who, coincidentally enough, should be coming off the DL in the near future. Now, De Leon’s debut with Tampa Bay should be right around the corner.

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De Leon features a four-seamer that sits at 92–93 mph and a solid slider, but his best pitch is likely his changeup. That will serve him well against power-hitting lefties in the majors, especially since he’s not going to blow hitters away with his fastball with any consistency. When he gets the call to the Rays, he’ll be of immediate interest in all fantasy formats.

Two-start pitchers

Clayton Kershaw
Lance McCullers
Carlos Carrasco
Zack Greinke
Danny Duffy
Johnny Cueto
Rick Porcello
Gerrit Cole
Kyle Hendricks
Michael Pineda
Jake Odorizzi
Jason Vargas
Lance Lynn
Alex Cobb
Matt Shoemaker
John Lackey
Michael Fulmer
Ervin Santana
Amir Garrett
Jerad Eickhoff
Patrick Corbin
Matt Harvey
Mike Foltynewicz
Andrew Cashner
Jimmy Nelson
Jordan Zimmermann
Jhoulys Chacin
Christian Bergman
Jordan Montgomery
J.C. Ramirez
Miguel Gonzalez
R.A. Dickey
Joe Biagini
Tyler Glasnow
Brad Peacock
Ubaldo Jimenez
Josh Tomlin
Ty Blach
German Marquez
Zach Eflin
Jeff Hoffman
Scott Feldman
Dylan Covey

GIF of the Week

Chris Archer didn’t have a particularly clean week, allowing nine earned runs in 11 1/3 innings, but he did rack up 18 strikeouts. It’s not often we see Francisco Lindor fooled this badly.

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