Logic suggests that you avoid making the comparison of Jose Berrios to Johan Santana, what with Johan being a lefthander who won two Cy Young Awards, and Jose a righthander needing more than last season’s All-Star appearance to rank among the top starters in the American League.
Yet, there it was, only four minutes into Thursday’s season opener at Target Field, and Berrios had done a couple of things that caused Santana to come immediately to mind.
First, Berrios broke out a changeup that had Cleveland leadoff hitter Leonys Martin way out in front. And then Jose Ramirez, batting second, tried to beat the Twins’ shift with a bunt and Berrios bolted off the mound to throw him out.
A changeup to make a hitter look helpless? That was Johan. A burst off the mound to make an excellent fielding play? That was Johan.
The Twins haven’t had a true ace starter since they traded Santana after the 2007 season. And Berrios, turning 25 in late May, is the most likely contender to be the Next Johan that the Twins have had in the decade-plus of searching for one.
Santana was a 20-year-old when the Twins wound up with him after the Rule 5 draft in December 1999. It wasn’t until July 11, 2003, that they put him permanently in the rotation. He made 15 starts after that, going 8-2 with a 3.22 ERA, and also started Game 1 of the ALDS vs. the Yankees.
That moved Santana to the top of the Twins rotation in 2004, the year that he turned 25. He was 20-6 with a 2.61 ERA and 228 innings pitched. He received all 28 first-place votes in winning a first Cy Young Award.
Berrios had turned 18 a week before the Twins selected him from Puerto Rico with the 32nd overall selection in June 2012. He debuted for the Twins in late April 2016, went down and back with Class AAA Rochester, and was mostly a nervous wreck with an 8.02 ERA in 14 starts.
That was part of the disastrous season (59-103) that caused the change at the top of the baseball operation. Both the Terry Ryan people who drafted Berrios, and the Derek Falvey crew that replaced most of them, were in agreement: Don’t panic on Berrios. Once he calmed down and started throwing strikes as he did in the minors, he would be tough to handle for big-league hitters.
That started to happen in 2017 when he was put in the rotation in mid-May and went 14-8 with a 3.89 ERA. It continued in 2018, when he was 12-11 with a 3.84 ERA, 192⅓ innings in 32 starts, and that one scoreless inning in the All-Star Game.
There is more to come, though — the Twins expect it, and Berrios seems certain of it.
In this era that the importance of wins for starters is underplayed, even disparaged by the Brian Kenny crowd, Berrios’ message in Thursday’s Star Tribune was this: He wants to win 20 in 2019. Count me in on this — a pitcher who wants to be able to call himself a 20-game winner.
Berrios grabbed No. 1 with 7⅔ scoreless innings and a 2-0 victory over Corey Kluber, Cleveland’s two-time Cy Young winner.
It was obvious the way Kluber was dominating the Twins — six up, six down on 18 pitches — that there would be no room for a wobble from Berrios.
“I knew we were going to compete against each other,” Berrios said. “He’s a great competitor. I didn’t give up, I didn’t give in.”
Berrios and Kluber both had given up a hit and a walk through six scoreless innings. Berrios added a 1-2-3 seventh, and the Twins finally broke through vs. Kluber: singles from Nelson Cruz and C.J. Cron, a two-run double by Marwin Gonzalez.
“It was what we had hoped for Jose,” catcher Jason Castro said. “He was spectacular. He outpitched one of the best pitchers in baseball.”
Johan was 6-foot and alleged to have reached 210 pounds. Berrios is an inch shorter than his listed 6-foot, but he’s muscular, as was Johan, and more than the 185 pounds you’ll find on Baseball Reference.
To me, physically, Johan and Jose are almost the same guy. And while Berrios will never be the changeup all-timer that was Johan, he’s adding that to the weapons — 12 changeups, nine strikes, eight swing-and-misses.
Asked if he’s likely to increase his use of changeups, Berrios said:
“I think I’m going to — moving forward as the season builds, keep trusting that pitch more. It felt better out of my hand today.”
And let’s face it, anyone angling to be the Twins’ Next Johan, there has to be a changeup in the mix as a reminder.