It has been an ugly season thus far for the Minnesota Twins. After being one of the more pleasant surprises of the 2015 season, the 2016 version has struggled to a 10-27 start. While last year’s team definitely overachieved, there was no possible projection that saw things being this bad. The recipe for the worst record in the American League and second worst in the sport is quite simple. The Twins rank 14th in the American League in runs scored (136) and runs allowed (195). Quite simply, they are currently the worst team in the American League.
Yet, they began the season with the expectation of a contender. Much of that was based on the illusion that 2015 created, but there were some intriguing pieces in place that offered some hope. Some of their preseason hopes have actually panned out. The organization made a keen signing of Byung-ho Park. Park is doing his part, hitting .257/.339/.578. Joe Mauer is back to posting an on base percentage over .400. Ervin Santana has posted a 3.38 FIP in six starts. Tyler Duffey has been solid (2.99 FIP) in four starts. But, unfortunately, that’s been about it so far.
The Twins were really banking on a trio of prospects to carry the team. Miguel Sano was supposed to build upon his torrid second half of 2015. Thus far, Sano hasn’t come close to those expectations, batting .229/.329/.389 with 5 home runs. Center fielder Byron Buxton is already back at Triple-A after hitting .156/.208/.289 in 49 plate appearances. Buxton’s failure to hit really hurts the Twins as he is an excellent defensive center fielder. Considering the Twins rank near the bottom of the League in terms of defense, his absence is felt.
But, the Twins really had hope in 21 year old starting pitcher Jose Berrios. The organization’s top prospect was called up to start on April 27th after dominating in three Triple-A starts (1.06 ERA and 20 strikeouts in 17 innings). Like his Major League club, Berrios’ early Major League career has not started well. Monday night was rock bottom for him as he lasted just two-thirds of an inning, allowing 3 hits, 7 runs, and a strikeout. His main problem on Monday night summed up his early Major League career problem–a lack of control. The four walks did him in after he allowed a lead off home run to Ian Kinsler to start his night. Following the home run, Berrios walked JD Martinez and Miguel Cabrera before getting a fielder’s choice on Victor Martinez. Nick Castellanos singled home a run before Berrios struck out Justin Upton. With two outs and just two runs in, Berrios could’ve minimized the damage. Instead, he gave up two consecutive walks and followed those up with a double to Jose Iglesias. With that, his night was done.
Through his first four starts, the 21 year old right hander stands at 1-1 with a 10.20 ERA (7.36 FIP). In 15 innings, he’s allowed 20 hits (5 home runs), 17 runs, 12 walks, and 20 strikeouts. Those are troubling numbers. Those are numbers, despite their small sample, that could lead to a demotion. Obviously the walks are the main culprit. But, his process at the Major League level is a bit troubling. For a pitcher who has so much movement on his pitches, Berrios has continuously found himself behind in counts. That does help explain why a pitcher who is capable of an elite strikeout rate–and has demonstrated that skill at the Major League level–has given up so many hits. Of his 321 pitches thrown in four starts, only 189 have been thrown for strikes. For a pitcher who predominantly uses his fastball, he has to get ahead more often if he wants to be successful. Because he employs just three pitches, Berrios must harness his control.
Fortunately, his Minor League track record does offer hope. Over the past three seasons, he has lowered his walk rate from 8.8 percent to last year’s Triple-A mark of 4.4 percent. And, with a consistent strikeout percent over 27 percent, he has always demonstrated the skill to be an above average strikeout pitcher. That’s a skill that has translated to the Major League level. Despite his lack of control, he has elicited swings and misses with pitches thrown in the strike zone at a 14.3 percent rate, which is right at the Major League average. If he could work ahead of hitters, it would allow him to not only increase his swing and miss rate with pitches inside the zone, but it would get batters to chase pitches outside of the zone. The tools are there and there are Minor League numbers to back them up.
Perhaps what is most troubling is that Berrios’ command was off at Triple-A this season. Despite the great start, his walk rate was at 12 percent. This leads to the belief that either Berrios is off with his mechanics or is simply has forgotten his process.
There is no question about the talent. Berrios’ stuff can play at a high level in the Major Leagues. You don’t strike out 20 batters in 15 innings without high end stuff. The movement on his pitches gives opposing batters a difficult time. There is also no question about time. Berrios won’t turn 22 until later in the month. He’s young and in the Major Leagues for the first time. Only a select few find success right away. Many, like Berrios, experience failure for the first time. He is dealing with that after Monday night’s beatdown in Detroit. Now, he’ll have to make adjustments in terms of approach. Whether it is a mechanical fix or a change in attack, Berrios has time to figure it out.
The Twins may want to send him back to the Minors so he can work without the glare of the Major Leagues. But, no location change will fix his problem. His problem is one that plagues many young pitchers. He simply has to trust his stuff enough early in counts in order to avoid Major League hitters sitting on his fastball. If he can do that, he can be a quality Major League pitcher. He’s already demonstrated an elite strikeout rate.
2015 definitely put unrealistic expectations on this team. The Twins are going through a rough patch with a young team. Sano will settle in and be the power force we all expect. Park has shown he can hit Major League pitching. And, Jose Berrios can be a high end starter. He just needs a bit more time to develop.