On The Comeback Trail: An interview with Toronto Blue Jays pitcher José Berríos

Philadelphia Phillies v Toronto Blue Jays
Philadelphia Phillies v Toronto Blue Jays / Julio Aguilar/GettyImages

Over the course of the 2022-2023 Major League Baseball offseason, José Berríos of the Toronto Blue Jays took a small breather from the game he holds so dearly to his heart.

On the field, Berríos, appropriately nicknamed "La Makina" (or "The Machine"), posted a 5.23 ERA and a 74 ERA+ in 32 starts, meaning he was a whopping 26 percent below-league-average. His 199 hits allowed and 100 earned runs led the American League. Walks were up, home runs were up and strikeouts were down.

Off the field, he found it necessary to take some time to flip the switch from "baseball player" to "dad," putting a huge portion of the offseason aside to play basketball with his kids, along with going swimming and even picking up bowling - the family's new favorite activity.

Last year as a whole is one to forget, but Berríos is instead choosing to use it as fuel to better himself moving forward.

Long known for his excellent work ethic and durability on the field, he got to spend some much-needed time with his family, but also worked tirelessly to improve on what should end up being a one-off down season for him. He knows what it takes to be successful at the game's highest level and what to do to improve in the upcoming season.

"We have been trying to make adjustments to my delivery and pitching approach", Berríos tells me on a phone call. "Been working a lot on my core and lower body as well, hoping to strengthen my lower body so I can push off the mound harder."

Sounds like you're trying to add more velocity? "Yes, for sure, I am trying to focus on using my back leg to add more torque and more power to throw the ball harder", he continues.

Over the years, Berríos' fourseamer has gradually seen an uptick from 92-93mph to 94-95mph. The addition of even more velocity is an interesting piece to the puzzle for him.

To try and pinpoint exactly what went wrong for him last year is not necessarily an easy task. However, Berríos thinks that somewhere along the way, he lost his aggressiveness early in counts and became more predictable.

What went wrong in 2022?

"I felt like I had been one of the better pitchers in the American League with first pitch strike percentages. I was attacking the hitter more (before 2022) and went from throwing good pitches for me, to throwing good pitches for the hitters. It's about more than just throwing strikes, it's about throwing quality pitches", he says.

Interestingly, it sounds like slight adjustments made in the previous offseason had a lot to do with how last year went for him. "I made minor changes to my delivery and release point and lost the way I attacked hitters. My mindset also got lost along the way and I have spent a lot of time this offseason getting myself back in check mentally", he finishes.

The mental side of baseball has never truly been talked about enough. Berríos is a highly competitive player on the mound and in the dugout, but even someone of his stature is capable of losing his way over the course of the long season.

"I am a competitive guy and I always want to do my best and obviously we had the team to win a World Series last year and we do again this year. Every fifth day I want to go out there and do my best, but once I had eight or 10 outings where the other team was scoring four or five runs off of me, it was really frustrating. That was part of my season and I had to deal with it. I represent a key role on my team and have had to show up every day being José Berríos, a guy that everyone knows is capable of competing and being in good spirits both in the clubhouse and on the field."

Berríos is playing out a huge seven-year, $131M contract extension signed in November of 2021. On one hand, there's immense pressure of having to live up to the expectations that come with such a deal. On the other hand, there's a bit of security in knowing that your team believes in you enough to sign you to a deal of that magnitude. Whether you perform like an ace or not, the team has a commitment to you.

"I see the deal as the Jays believing in the hard work I've put in and seeing what I am capable of doing. I'm upset with myself because I don't ever want to be seen as the crap pitcher, so I've been putting in the work this offseason to get better than I was last year."

Tom House and Diesel Optimization

Berríos has certainly been putting in the work this offseason. He spent time with both Tom House and Phil Wallin to try and address any weaknesses that found their way into his game last year.

House, 75, is best known for his work with the National Pitching Association. He is widely regarded as a "pitching wizard" and has trained some of the best athletes the world has ever seen including Drew Brees, Randy Johnson, Nolan Ryan and Tom Brady.

When reached out to for comment, House told me that his organization operates under privacy clauses with their clients and is unable to disclose any specifics. However, his reputation speaks for itself so it's easy to think that whatever Berríos worked on there was for the better.

Diesel Optimization (Instagram link here), an in-depth gym in downtown Tampa, Florida, where Berríos and his family live full-time, focuses on individualized training. They offer training courses for professional athletes and non-athletes alike.

Wallin, the owner, CEO and Performance Specialist of the establishment, doesn't have enough positive things to say about Berríos and what they were able to accomplish together. "José is a true competitor and one heck of an athlete. Coming off of a subpar year, we got him into a training program, lifestyle program and recovery program. La Makina is ready to go. He committed to a wearable device that looks at how he was sleeping, an AM/PM device that looks at his daily routines to help optimize energy, build body mass, burn fat, etc. He did a ton of cold tub therapy, sauna therapy and red light therapy which helps people physically and mentally."

"You can tell in his whole physique, he is ready to go. You can't go out and buy confidence, you have to work hard for it. He's gonna get it this year, he's going to be fired up to get out there and compete", Wallin finishes.

Some of Diesel Optimization's past clients? Aaron Judge before his 62 home run season, JT Realmuto, prime Josh Hader, Shane McClanahan, Andrew McCutchen, Rhys Hoskins, Andrew Miller and Drew Rasmussen to name a few. This is an organization that is sought out by true winners around the league and Berríos adding his name to their client list is likely going to be huge for him.

World Baseball Classic

While Berríos has gotten time with new and old faces in Spring Training, he's not going to be around camp for long, as he is headed for the 2023 World Baseball Classic where he will represent Team Puerto Rico for the second time. When GM Jose Sola called him, he could not answer "yes" fast enough. "I am always available to represent my island", he says. "My Puerto Rican teammates and I have a ton of respect for each other and we're always happy to play alongside each other and to play for our home island."

The pros and cons for entering the World Baseball Classic are well documented. On one hand, players get to represent their countries and families. On the other hand, they are exposed to what could potentially be "unnecessary" injuries. Interestingly, Berríos tells me that the Blue Jays tried to convince him to back out of the WBC.

"In the beginning, the team asked why I wanted to participate and gave me their reasons of why I should not go. I told them, 'I've been healthy every year of my career and have been ready to go for every Spring Training I've been a part of. For pitchers, the WBC is just like Spring Training. We pitch every fifth day no matter what and with a pitch limit too, so there's no issues for me here.'"

Berríos in particular is getting the opportunity to use the World Baseball Classic for more than just playing for his home country. "I obviously want to win it all, but I also want to see how my mechanical adjustments work against live hitters. I want to see all of the work I've been putting together over the offseason on the field and want to see the payoff." What better time to put these new tweaks to the test than against the world's best?

He mentions that as of right now, the plan is for him to make two starts in Spring Training games before he leaves for the World Baseball Classic.

Support system

With his wife, daughter (8) and two sons (5, 6), Berríos has the best support system a man could ask for. His family helped him immensely through the struggles last season and is what he says is his "reason why".

"They understood what was going on last season, they know what I do for a living and that there are plenty of ups and downs", he says. "They love baseball, they love being around my teammates and their family members. I had them with me for the hardest parts of last year. Life for me is easy because my family loves what I do for a living."

One thing Berríos has on his side entering the 2023 season is his old mindset and the swagger he misplaced last year. After so many years of success, he experienced what it is to truly struggle last season. He's ready to go for this year and knows what he needs to do to succeed once again.

"That's life, sometimes you struggle. It's all part of the process. The most important thing you can do is take that negative thing and see how you can turn it into a positive. That's why we wake up every morning and try to get better every single day."