Twins ace Jose Berrios sets his goal: to be one of the best pitchers in baseball
With a season completed and another one approaching, Jose Berrios took time during the winter to declare his goals for 2019.
“Yeah. I always do,” Berrios said. “Every offseason, I write in my notebook that I have in my apartment right now.”
Please understand that this is important. It’s what leads to him pushing cars across fields near his home in Puerto Rico during training sessions, or using the beaches as gymnasiums while others are soaking in sun, or running 3½ miles the days after his starts.
His goals fuel his commitment. And it seems as if he’s always working toward something.
“I want to [win] 20 games,” he said. “I put in that goal last year, and I didn’t accomplish it, but I have the chance to accomplish it this year. I want to put the team in the playoffs again. [The 2017 playoffs were] fun, and I want to be there again. And make the All-Star Game. That’s what was fun for me last summer, and I want to be there again.”
After another winter of relentless workouts, Berrios is ready to tackle these goals. He’ll do so with a second curveball he’s developed. And a changeup he plans to throw more than ever to complement his curveball. Those improvements are coming off a 2018 season during which the 23-year-old went 12-11 with a 3.84 ERA and pitched in his first All-Star Game.
He begins the season with another honor — at 24, he’ll be the youngest Twins player to start Opening Day since Brad Radke, who was 23 in 1996. It’s an assignment — facing the defending American League Central Division champion Indians — that shows he’s taken another step toward becoming one of the top pitchers in the game.
His no-offseason approach to training — well, he does take two weeks off following the end of the season until he feels guilty — has set him up to check off his to-do list this season.
“I never believe I’m the best,” he said, “but I always prepare to be.”
Batting practice is the time when Berrios displays how he fell in love with baseball. Like most pitchers are required to do, Berrios stands in the outfield to help shag fly balls. But when ground balls are hit his way, he quickly pounces on them like he’s a shortstop.
That’s because shortstop was his preferred position while growing up in Puerto Rico.
“When we have batting practice I go after ground balls like a shortstop because it’s in my blood,” he said.
Until he was told otherwise.
“They told me I would make more money as a pitcher,” he said with a chuckle. “And I did not hit well.”
Hector Otero, who scouted Puerto Rico for the Twins at the time, was one of those people.
“When he pitched, he dominated,” said Otero, who now is with the Reds, “and he showed flashes of a good breaking ball. He always was a hard worker, always. And his makeup was off the charts.”
Berrios was selected by the Twins with the 32nd overall pick in the 2012 draft. Within a couple of seasons, he established himself as one of the better pitching prospects in the game — and drew attention for his work ethic.
“Back in the minors he was all day every day,” said lefthander Taylor Rogers, Berrios’ teammate going back to Class A Cedar Rapids.
“I thought he was going to wear himself out. He was running all over the place. Used to be different stuff. Run to the ballpark some days, show up all sweaty and stuff. He would be the first one there working out.”
Berrios currently fires darts and flummoxes hitters with a curveball that seems to break as much horizontally as it does vertically. In the minors, he fired fastballs as hard as 97 miles per hour and had a good feel for a changeup. His curveball wasn’t that great, but it has been the pitch he’s harnessed in recent years to help propel him to the majors.
And Berrios knew then where he would end up.
“He would always post on social media and stuff about his dreams,” Rogers said, “and, every now and then, that is what he would talk about. He wanted to be a big leaguer and he wanted to be an All-Star. And here he is.”
Berrios’ debut in 2016 was a rough one: He went 3-7 with an 8.02 ERA during two stints with the club. Little worked. It got to the point where his bullpen sessions were held in front of pitching coach Neil Allen, Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven and teammate Ervin Santana. They suggested he wrap his hands behind his head as he started his delivery, to help with his rhythm, a move he uses today.
In 2017, he served notice that he was for real following a May call-up. He went 14-8 with a 3.89 ERA in 26 games. Then came last year’s breakthrough and All-Star appointment.
Berrios, big surprise, is not satisfied. His curveball — well, pitching coach Wes Johnson thinks it’s more like a tight slider-curve hybrid — has aided in his strikeout ratio of 9.5 per nine innings. When he doesn’t have his curveball, he’s vulnerable.
So he’s worked this spring training on his changeup, a pitch he’s used only 9.8 percent of the time in his career.
“This spring he has thrown the changeup more than he ever has, including the regular season,” Johnson said. “That has been a big point for us all spring, and it will continue to play.”
And, in the latest example of not being satisfied, Berrios is working on a second curveball, one that’s referred to as a “12-to-6” curve for its vertical drop.
“I prefer [to throw] both,” Berrios said. “One for early in the count, then [the other] for a strikeout, depending on the hitter.”
He’s coming off an All-Star season but is adding pitches. Great players don’t settle.
“I’ve been around some of these guys and have seen that, and that stands out to me,” Twins Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey said. “I think Jose is that guy.
“The key though is balance. You don’t always want to be trying something new, because sometimes once you get to a good place and settle in and perfect your craft, don’t do too many things at once. It’s just not good for anyone at some point. But Jose has a good plan right now. He and Wes are on the same page.”
Payoff in sight
While Berrios is the de facto ace of the Twins staff, starters Max Scherzer, Clayton Kershaw and Justin Verlander are among the true aces of the game. Berrios wants in that club.
“I want to be more consistent,” Berrios said.
That’s a start.
“He keeps taking steps,” Falvey said. “I think that all you can really count on is just that he takes the next step each time. I don’t know where the end result is for Jose, and I hope it’s really high, but there’s no question of work habits, there’s no question of his care for how he goes about pitching.”
More steps mean higher status. Higher status makes him more valuable. And higher value means a bigger payday.
Berrios will earn $620,000 this season after turning down a multiyear contract offer from the Twins during the winter — for the second consecutive offseason.
He’s betting on himself and showing no signs of letting the business side of the game affect him.
“It’s fun because, the same way, I have to keep working hard,” he said. “I’m not laying down because I don’t have nothing yet. That’s good for me. I like it. There’s no pressure, but we don’t have nothing yet, so keep doing what we’re doing. And when I have it, I’m going to use it in the best way to use it for my future and for my family.”
On Tuesday morning — the final day of camp — Berrios was seen leaving a local gym around 8 a.m. He had just finished a workout, was headed home to take a nap, eat, then join his teammates at Hammond Stadium before the final exhibition game of spring training.
Berrios said he was at the gym because the club doesn’t open the ballpark early anymore — rest and recovery has been the mantra of this camp — and that doesn’t jibe with his schedule.
“Because we are major league players,” he said, “and that is a very serious job for us. So I have to take care of every second, every moment.”
It’s putting him on path that would give the Twins their first true ace since Johan Santana in the mid-2000s. Berrios would be the first Twin since Santana in 2004 to win 20 games in a season, if he checks off that box.
And that’s just one of his goals this season as he continues his ascension.
“I certainly think he has that makeup,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said of Berrios becoming an ace. “He has the whole package. You could throw a lot of superlatives at this guy. He’s got all the physical ability, he’s a leader, he works incredibly hard. He’s a great example for our major league players around him, our minor league players, anyone watching the game.”