MINNEAPOLIS -- José Berríos’ swing-and-miss stuff is still there. But can he harness it?
Berríos struck out a season-high seven batters in his start Saturday and is fanning roughly a batter an inning, in line with his career average. But for the third straight outing, the Twins’ Opening Day starter didn’t have his best command, and the Royals made him pay for his wildness with a timely homer from Whit Merrifield that sank Minnesota in a 4-2 loss and a split of the doubleheader of seven-inning games at Target Field.
The 26-year-old issued a pair of walks in the first inning to load the bases, but struck out the side to escape damage. He ended a threat in the second inning with a slick pickoff of Cam Gallagher at second base.
Berríos again issued a pair of walks in the fourth -- to the Nos. 7 and 9 hitters in Kansas City’s lineup -- and that time, Merrifield took advantage by taking a misplaced first-pitch changeup into the left-field seats for a decisive three-run blast.
“Even through fighting himself a little bit, [Berríos] still found a way to get through different situations, make pitches when he needed to until the big swing from Whit,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “That’s obviously a big play in the game, and that’s a big at-bat after going through the bottom of the order with two outs and not being able to close the inning.”
Berríos has issued 10 walks over his past three starts, including a season-high four free passes on Saturday. He walked four batters in a start only once in 2019. He has now issued three or more walks in three consecutive starts, which occurred in only one three-start span last season.
At times, Berríos has been able to make it work. Two starts ago, he walked three Pirates hitters but otherwise held them to four hits and one run over six strong innings. But in his two most recent outings, both against the Royals, he’s allowed eight runs over 9 1/3 frames.
One thing that has been consistent in this three-start span has been Berríos’ ability to generate whiffs, with 11, 13 and 12 swing-and-misses against his stuff in those appearances. He actually entered Saturday’s start generating a higher whiff rate than he did a year ago. But if he can’t clean up his consistency around the zone, opportunistic lineups will take advantage -- as Merrifield and the Royals did.
“We saw the swings-and-misses and the strikeouts today,” Baldelli said. “Those are encouraging things. We know what he has. And the stuff looks like José, that’s what he brings to the table every time he starts. It’s just that the execution isn’t exactly where he wants it to be.”
Berríos did point out that he changed his positioning on the pitching rubber before this season, moving closer to the third-base side in an effort to throw across his body less and create a better angle against right-handed hitters. Neither he nor Baldelli could attribute the challenges to that change in particular, but it is a difference nonetheless.
“Could it be maybe something that has affected José in a major or a minor way? Yes,” Baldelli said. “Anything could. When you’re dealing with very fine margins and you’re playing at the highest level, if you’re trying something new -- and that could be the case -- it could also have very little to do with anything going on out on the field. It’s very difficult to tell.”
All that considered, Berríos’ strikeout rate has still been solid and the exit-velocity numbers also weren’t all too concerning on Saturday, with only two batted balls off Berríos qualifying as hard-hit. He hopes that means he’s close to finding his form.
“If I minimize the walks, I’ll be in better position,” Berríos said. “More strikeouts, more swings-and-misses today, so I’m going to take that as a positive thing to work between this start to the next one. I try to be better day by day, so I’ll be close.”