He’s just a rookie. He’s just a rookie.
Like watching Byron Buxton strike out, like enduring Miguel Sano’s missed ground balls, Paul Molitor has to repeat that mantra constantly as he watches Jose Berrios, long reputed to be a star in waiting, pitch in the major leagues.
“[I’m] trying to be patient with his ability. The things he’s been able to do at the lower levels, trying to get it translated up here,” Molitor said after the 22-year-old Berrios absorbed his fifth consecutive noncompetitive loss, 7-1 to the Indians on Sunday at Target Field. “I’m not concerned about him long-term, at this point.”
The short term, though, has been a virtual nonstop disappointment, a series of starts that the Twins approach hopefully, only to have the same problems strike over and over. Berrios falls behind almost every hitter he faces, and sometimes seems unable to throw a strike from 5 feet away, much less 60. Sunday, the first two pitches the righthander threw were strikes, but they were followed by six in a row outside the strike zone, causing shortstop Jorge Polanco to jog to the mound to calm him down. For the game, Berrios threw 35 pitches out of the strike zone, and only 30 in it.
“You can see that he’s either putting too much pressure on himself or just having a hard time locating,” Molitor said of his youngest player, who might be headed to the bullpen over the season’s final weeks in an effort to restore his confidence. “A lot of balls over the course of his outing, a lot of hitters’ counts, like his last start.”
And the one before that, and the one before that. Berrios has walked at least four batters in three of his past four starts, and in five consecutive starts now, he has allowed at least as many runs as innings pitched. In 11 starts as a major leaguer, he has retired the side in order only seven times, four of them in one game, and his last 1-2-3 inning was back on Aug. 19, 14 innings ago.
He’s hardly alone; rookie pitchers as a class are notoriously slow adapters in the majors. Of 25 rookies who have made 10 starts this season, only nine have ERAs below 4.00. Trouble is, Berrios’ 9.24 ERA is the worst of all of them.
So Sunday’s start was much like the others. Berrios (2-6) walked two in the first inning, but emerged unscathed by getting Lonnie Chisenhall to pop up. An infield single and a walk got him right back in trouble in the second, but escape was within reach again when back-to-back Indians bunted, one a sacrifice and one an ill-advised pop-up. After getting behind Carlos Santana 2-1, though, Berrios laid a knee-high fastball across the middle of the plate, and Santana crushed it 445 feet onto the right-field plaza.
“He had an open base there and he fell behind. You’ve got to try to make pitchers’ pitches there, and if you lose him, you go on to the next guy,” Molitor said. “But three-run homers are big parts of winning and losing games.”
Now Molitor will consider whether to allow Berrios, projected to be in next year’s rotation, to make his final three or four starts of 2016, or move him to a relief role. “We need to consider what’s best for him,” Molitor said.
Berrios insists he feels the same as he did in the minor leagues, where he was a dominant star and led all levels in strikeouts last season. Molitor believes him, but knows what he sees, too.
“I’ve watched him pitch, I see the ball ones, I see the changeup not being a very effective pitch to getting back in the counts, to get chases,” Molitor said. “He’s pressing for results and the harder he presses, it seems like it goes conversely. I tried to … I wouldn’t say console, but talk to him after the outing. I know he’s working, I know he’s trying.”
But just like with Buxton and Sano, the Twins are learning just how much patience they must have with young players. Berrios will be a star, they remain convinced. That day can’t come soon enough.
“We’ve got to look at the bright side of his youth — arm strength and those things that we still feel will play here. It’s just tough to get over these speed bumps that he’s had to face here at the major league level,” Molitor said. “I still believe it’s there. It just hasn’t happened up here very consistently yet.”