Berríos is ready to believe in himself again

Mental game, small adjustments will be key for right-hander's bounce back

February 18th, 2023

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- José Berríos tends to take things to heart. There’s an introspective nature to the 28-year-old Puerto Rican, who spent much of the 2022 season struggling with his place in the Blue Jays’ successes and failures.

It had been years since Berríos last stumbled as a 22-year-old rookie learning the ropes in Minnesota. For the five seasons that followed, he was one of the most consistent players in Major League Baseball. Then, he wasn’t.

Berríos posted a 5.23 ERA last season, worst among all qualified starters. He was never all the way “off” and never lost control of the zone entirely, but steadily and subtly, the struggles continued. Beyond the individual games themselves, Berríos often spoke about his responsibility to his teammates to give them something better.

Each time, it was heartfelt. This was bothering Berríos.

“He was as accountable as anyone I’ve ever seen,” said manager John Schneider, “both [to] us, which he did not need to do, and to his teammates, which he did not need to do. Both in small groups and big groups. With his competitive fire, he competes with the best of them. He probably felt like he wasn’t pulling his weight at some times, which wasn’t really the case either.”

This is why the Blue Jays hold such optimism for Berríos entering ’23. They believe in the person first and foremost, and it’s clear that there’s no massive overhaul needed here. Berríos didn’t lose 5 mph on his fastball or spike his curveballs 10 feet in front of home plate. These are small adjustments, which begin with his mechanics.

Berríos has been in Dunedin since January, far earlier than his typical schedule of arriving a few days before the official report date. He’s working to stay aligned, push harder with his back leg and avoid flying open too early with his front side. What matters more, though, is the mental game.

“One thing I learned was to never give more credit to a hitter than I have to,” Berríos said. “I’ll just believe in myself. I’m José Berríos. I’m here because I’ve done a lot of good things out there. I have to believe in that.”

Being José Berríos is more than enough. That’s what he’s eager to get back to, and that was clear Saturday at the Blue Jays’ Player Development Complex as Berríos stood in front of the media, his hair bleached blond like many of his Puerto Rican teammates ahead of the World Baseball Classic.

Restoring his confidence is the first step, and the WBC could be part of that. The mindset he fell into last season won’t work again, which he knows.

“When things don’t go the way you want, you start doubting yourself and giving credit to the hitter. That can’t happen in the game,” Berríos said. “Between the lines, you have to believe in yourself and compete 100 percent. That’s the number one thing I learned last year.”

In many ways, the right-hander is the biggest variable on this roster.

When Berríos looks like himself, he can give the Blue Jays 180-plus innings with a mid-three ERA. That would give Toronto one of the best rotations in the Majors, stepping up alongside , and .

Those four names bring such different looks, too, even if they’re all right-handers. Manoah is the big personality, hammering away with fastballs and challenging hitters to put the ball in play with weak contact. Gausman is the splitter maestro, forcing hitters to swing over the top as his trademark pitch dives down. Bassitt throws nearly every pitch ever invented. Add in a healthy Berríos with his breaking ball, which can be a brilliant pitch when it’s on, and you have a rotation capable of not just winning in the regular season but taking down a top lineup in October.

Once Berríos finds his groove again, it should all come naturally. He knows how it feels to lead a rotation year in and year out, and there are still six full seasons remaining on the seven-year, $131 million extension he signed after Toronto acquired him from Minnesota.

If the Blue Jays were a 92-win team with Berríos pitching like he did in ’22, then a return to form for “La MaKina” (The Machine) might do more to put this team over the top than any offseason move.