This article was originally published on my blog, cargocultsabermetrics.com.
Developing a new pitch can be a great way for a pitcher to have a breakout season. In 2018, we saw big improvements from Trevor Bauer adding a slider, Adam Ottavino adding a cutter, and Patrick Corbin adding a curveball. A new pitch can sometimes be the missing puzzle piece when trying to figure out why a player is good and not great. For Jose Berrios, a cutter might be that missing piece.
Examining Berrios’ arsenal
Jose Berrios has one of the nastiest curveballs in baseball. Instead of having the typical downward break associated with curveballs, Berrios’ curve averages 15.5 inches of glove-side break. This results from Berrios imparting gyro spin (think bullet spin) on his curveball rather than 12-6 top spin. Because of this, Berrios generates close to no vertical break caused by Magnus force, which is just a fancy way of saying the only drop we see on Berrios’ curve is due to gravity rather than top spin.
To pair with his curve, Berrios has a four-seam fastball which generates 9.5 inches of arm side run and 16.5 inches of upward vertical break due to Magnus force (causing the pitch to drop less), a two-seam fastball which generates 16.5 inches of arm-side run and 11.0 inches of upward vertical break, and a changeup with 14.5 inches of arm-side run and 5.5 inches of upward vertical break (the changeup will drop even more than the fastball since it is thrown slower and gravity will have more time to bring the pitch down).
Berrios’ repertoire can be visualized with the chart and pitch frequency table below:
Berrios’ arm slot causes his pitches to have more horizontal break than vertical break. Compare Berrios’ chart to Kyle Gibson’s, who throws from a higher arm slot:
Having an arsenal which tends towards more horizontal/vertical break isn’t inherently a good or bad thing. There are dominant pitchers at a variety of different arm angles, from Justin Verlander’s traditional delivery to Ottavino’s sidearm motion. But what’s keeping Berrios from making the leap from borderline All-Star to one of the best pitchers in baseball? Let’s look at a pitcher who has a similar movement profile to Berrios but is consistently one of the best in the game:
For roughly 70% of his pitches, Corey Kluber relies on a mix of his curveball, which generates roughly 14.5 inches of glove-side break, a four-seam fastball with 6.5 inches of arm-side break and 15.3 inches of vertical break, a sinker/two-seamer with 15 inches of arm-side break and nine inches of vertical break, and a changeup with 12.5 inches of arm-side break and five inches of upward vertical break (again, the vertical break is before factoring in gravity).
That 70% of Kluber’s arsenal is quite similar to Berrios’ entire arsenal. In fact, each pitch in Berrios’ arsenal appears to have a little more break than those pitches in that part of Kluber’s arsenal. Let’s see how their velocity compares on each pitch.
Berrios and Kluber have similar velocity readings across each pitch they share, with Berrios throwing a tick harder on his fastball. Berrios throws his changeup and curve a little slower than Kluber.
Berrios throws his fastball harder and gets more break on his curveball than Kluber, but Kluber gets better results. According to FanGraphs, Kluber was worth 5.6 WAR in 2018 compared to Berrios’ 3.3 WAR. An extra win in baseball is worth millions, and 2.3 extra wins is worth even more millions, so what’s keeping Berrios from matching Kluber’s output and value?
At this point, it’s clear to see the remaining 30% of Kluber’s arsenal is his cutter. Kluber’s cutter averaged 88.7 mph and generated about three inches of glove-side run and six inches of upward vertical break, which places the pitch in the middle of his arsenal by movement. A quick look at Brooks Baseball shows Kluber threw his cutter 32% of the time against lefties last year and 26% of the time against righties. Because of the wide differences in horizontal break, Kluber was able to play his cutter off both his curveball and his fastballs. Perhaps if Berrios had a cutter, he could do the same and become a perennial Cy Young candidate.
Adding a new pitch isn’t the only way for a pitcher to achieve a breakthrough. Some players see improvements by changing their pitch mix, like when Ryan Pressly started using his curveball more in Houston. Some players revitalize their career by adding velocity, like Scott Kazmir did a few years back. Some players can see immediate improvements by changing the way they attack hitters, like when Tyler Glasnow joined the Rays last season and was finally allowed to throw high fastballs to pair with his 12-6 curve.
But when players add the right pitch and work it into their arsenal, it can make the difference between being merely good and one of the best in baseball. Last year, Bauer went from being a solid innings eater to one of the best pitchers in baseball by designing an elite slider over the offseason at Driveline Baseball. Ottavino developed a cutter at the same place, which made him one of the nastiest relievers in the game. Corbin landed a $140 million contract this offseason after he created a curveball in 2018 by throwing a slower version of his slider, improving his FanGraphs WAR from 3.0 to 6.3 in the process.
Adding the right pitch can be a silver bullet for a pitcher, and for Berrios, that silver bullet might look like an 89-91-mph cutter to play off his fastballs and curveball.
Wes Johnson has the tools to help
There might not be a pitching coach in baseball more suited to help Berrios develop a cutter than Wes Johnson. As a college pitching coach, Johnson was known for being on the leading edge of using technology to develop players. Johnson no doubt has experience using tools such as Rapsodo and TrackMan to guide pitch design.
Designing a new pitch takes trial and error. The pitcher needs to toy with different grips and cues to nail down the right release point to make a pitch move correctly. Designing a new pitch is often aided by a Rapsodo/TrackMan unit and a high-speed camera to get a clear view of how the baseball is leaving the pitcher’s hand. A Rapsodo unit can generate movement charts like the ones above to see how a pitcher’s arsenal looks and provide real-time pitch data which allows players to adjust during bullpens. It’s a safe bet to say Johnson’s knowledge of this technology and how it can be used to aid pitch design was a factor in the Twins’ decision to bring him on as the major league pitching coach.
Berrios is missing a cutter, and Wes Johnson is the right guy to help. Berrios has flashed brilliance in the past, but it will be up to him and the new pitching coach to find a way to take his game up a level. A cutter could potentially get him there fast.