If there is one image of the 2023 Blue Jays season that will haunt fans through a long, cold Canadian winter and offseason, it is of a dejected José Berríos lingering on the dugout steps watching his old Minnesota Twins teammates celebrating their AL Wild Card sweep of Toronto.
We can all relive the image of Bo Bichette wrapping his arm around Berríos and saying something through his glove as manager John Schneider walked to the mound to yank him after just 47 pitches, when he’d struck out five of the first eleven batters he’d faced. We can all see the video of Chris Bassitt consoling him on those dugout steps after the final out. But we can’t ask for a mulligan on what is now widely viewed as an inexcusable decision.
Berríos was publicly dignified and professional afterwards. What more could he say about the reasoning behind the early hook, other than “Honestly, I don’t know. Other than that, I can’t control that. Like I said, I did my best for those first 12 batters.”
We can talk about the incredible turnaround season Berríos had, going from dead last in ERA among qualified starters at 5.23 in 2022, to the 10th best ERA among qualified AL starters in 2023 at 3.65. We can marvel at how the 29-year old “La Makina" was indeed back to his machine-like self, making 32 starts and pitching 189.2 innings, the second most on the Jays after Chris Bassitt, and the 16th most in MLB.
We can dive into Statcast and his pitch selection and see that compared to 2022, he used his sinker more (31.5% of his pitches vs 25.9% last year), threw less 4-seam fastballs (20.4% vs 27.7%), and continued to generate a 30%+ whiff rate with his 83mph slurve.
Unlike many of his teammates, Berríos was comparable or even better than his career averages in 2023. And in a little less than 2.5 seasons in Toronto, Berríos has largely been as advertised: 76 starts, 432.0 innings and 411 strikeouts versus only 110 walks. The fact the team is 46-30 (.605) in his starts for the Blue Jays is gravy.
But José Berríos deserved so much more from this organization; from its front office and his manager. He was dealing in the biggest game of his life, which also marked his playoff return to Target Field. As he said before the game: “Pitching against old friends and teammates… It’s going to be a fun series. I love pitching in this ballpark.”
His last postseason start for the Twins also came in heartbreaking fashion: a 3-1 loss to the Yankees at home, that swept Minnesota out of the playoffs in 2020. Berríos went 5.0 innings in that game, allowing only one run on two hits, with four strikeouts and two walks on 75 pitches.
As Joel Sherman of the NY Post wrote about the game two Jays debacle this year, “Yes, he walked the leadoff hitter in the fourth. But it was an eight-pitch walk to the batter he was not going to let beat him. [Royce] Lewis had homered twice in Minnesota’s Game 1 win. There was zero sense during that at-bat that Berrios was losing it. But a decision had been made hours before this moment to pull Berrios without the knowledge of how Berrios was pitching or that the baserunner was Lewis and how he got on base, and since it was Lewis moving slowly while still nursing a hamstring injury, it was going to take multiple non-homer hits to score him.”
And with all of the “On this day…” posts we’re seeing lately about the Blue Jays postseason romps in 1992 and 1993 on their way to back-to-back World Series championships, the hold the analytics department has taken on the Blue Jays front office and baseball strategy only reinforces that, sometimes, overthinking things - and ignoring what your eyes are telling you - can lead to unfortunate outcomes.
Old-timers can only wax nostalgic about the days when Juan Guzmán allowed just one run in seven innings to earn the game five win over the White Sox in the 1993 ALCS. Or how Dave Stewart allowed just two runs in 7 1/3 innings to earn the win in the series clinching game six to send the Jays back to World Series that year. Different time, different era. But Berríos deserved a similar outcome.
José Berríos is well deserving of an A grade for 2023. As Blue Jays fans, we can only hope that he doesn’t demand a trade or choose to opt out of his 7-year, $131 million contract after year five following the 2026 season, when he’ll only be 32 years old. Along with Kevin Gausman, Chris Bassitt and Yusei Kikuchi, we can at least already be excited about the starting rotation again for 2024.