Jose Berrios pulls out his iPhone and scrolls through it for a minute or so. He’s looking for a specific YouTube video to illustrate a story he just shared.
The video shows the house Berrios grew up in. Across the street is a baseball field that doubled as his second home. The distance from his front door to that diamond in Puerto Rico is an easy throw.
“I used to dream of being a bat boy,” Berrios says in Spanish through translator Elvis Martinez. “If I’m a bat boy, I’m going to be part of a Major League Baseball team.”
He smiles at the memory. He aimed a little low.
Barely 25 years old, Berrios has become an ace and is on the cusp of being one of the best pitchers in baseball in only his third full season in the Twins rotation. He ranks in the Top 15 of MLB starters in ERA, innings pitched and WHIP.
His nickname, “La Makina” – The Machine – isn’t so much bragging as it is a description of Berrios’ approach to his craft, and life in general. He is strictly business when it comes to pitching and preparing and wringing every ounce of potential from his 6-foot, 205-pound body and electric right arm.
He’s a workout warrior year-round, except for three weeks right after each season when he allows himself a break. He maintains a meticulous diet, consuming only healthy foods, except for Day 2 between starts, which he calls “cheat days.”
“I kill burgers and pizza,” he says.
His personality is a marriage of confidence and humility. Fiercely determined to achieve greatness but assume nothing. Still a bat boy chasing a dream.
Every offseason he writes down his goals in a notebook. No. 1 on his list this season: Make the Opening Day roster.
Wait, make the team?
“I don’t take anything for granted,” he says. “At this level, you can play well today, but guess what, today is over. Tomorrow you have to do it again. So I don’t get comfortable.”
Berrios spends an hourlong breakfast interview alternating between Spanish and English in between bites of his omelet. Ask him about being a staff ace, and he deflects praise to the rest of the rotation. Ask him about his three young children, and he pauses and says, “You’re going to make me cry.” Ask him about the thrill of being drafted and making it to the majors, and he tells you that this “is not the end goal.”
“He is an extremely mature person – pitcher, person, all the way around,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli says. “You forget that he’s still a very young guy. I consider him mature beyond his years.”
Hector Otero scouted Puerto Rico for the Twins when he first noticed a teenage shortstop who would pitch some late innings. There was something about the kid when he took the mound that fascinated the veteran scout. His live arm, sure, but more so his demeanor.
Otero called his bosses in the Twins scouting department and told them they had to come to Puerto Rico to see this “prizefighter.”
“Hector nailed this kid’s makeup,” said Tim O’Neil, a scouting supervisor at the time. “He competes like a prizefighter.”
Berrios impressed scouts with his array of pitches but they fell in love with his desire and competitiveness, which was evident “within 30 seconds of talking to him,” remembers Mike Radcliff, vice president in charge of player personnel.
“It’s over the top,” Radcliff said.
The ballpark was filled with scouts from every team the day Berrios, as a high school senior, pitched a no-hitter against another Puerto Rican team that featured 2012 No. 1 overall pick Carlos Correa.
“He threw probably the best amateur game I’ve ever seen,” said Deron Johnson, the Twins scouting director back then.
Johnson waited at the concession stand after the game, along with O’Neil. Otero brought Berrios over to meet them.
O’Neil remembers thinking Berrios looked like he was 14 years old, which was weird because he pitched like a fire-breathing behemoth.
“He was relentless for seven innings on a pretty big stage in front of a lot of scouts,” O’Neil said. “He was not afraid, I can tell you that.”
As the group huddled, Johnson asked Berrios what he likes to do best on the mound. Throw his fastball? Or fool hitters with his changeup and breaking ball?
I like to elevate my fastball, Berrios replied.
Johnson wanted to hug Berrios at that moment.
“We were like, this kid is awesome,” he said. “I was blown away.”
The Twins were on the clock with the 32nd overall pick in the draft a few months later. Team scouts and officials were torn because they had two pitchers – Berrios and Zach Eflin – ranked almost evenly.
Johnson, who ran the organization’s draft, went around the room asking for opinions without finding consensus. With time winding down, general manager Terry Ryan said, “make a call, ‘D’.”
The Twins took Berrios and San Diego selected Eflin with the next pick. Eflin is now with Philadelphia and has established himself in the Phillies’ rotation.
Both pitchers have promising futures. The Twins are beyond happy with their choice.
“He’s just so doggone competitive,” Johnson said.
Berrios watched the draft surrounded by family and friends. As the pick was announced, he raised both arms above his head, tears streaming down his cheeks.
Videos of Berrios’ workouts circulate on social media. In one, he’s pushing an SUV across a parking lot, then running sprints in ocean water up to his knees. A typical Friday morning workout in January.
Berrios began working with his personal trainer, Josue Lionel Rivera, early in his career and his devotion to physical fitness is almost maniacal. Berrios’ minor league managers would arrive at the ballpark early and find Berrios running laps around the field.
Berrios and Rivera hold early morning workouts before Berrios arrives at the stadium, then he does even more stretching, lifting and bullpen sessions.
Pushing cars seems extreme but Berrios said that’s not the hardest exercise. He picks two from Rivera’s catalog: 6-mile runs and one-legged squats.
“He’s very dedicated to getting his body ready to pitch,” Twins reliever Tyler Duffey said. “He’s a machine. He never stops.”
The Spanish spelling of machine is “maquina,” but Berrios and the Twins have adopted “La Makina.” Berrios even wore those letters on the back of his jersey last August during MLB’s Players Weekend series, when custom jerseys were allowed.
But La Makina’s overdrive hasn’t always served him well. As a minor league prospect, he often became too amped up in wanting to stifle an opposing lineup.
“He’d work himself into a frenzy,” Radcliff said. “He wanted to strike every guy out, every game, every batter, every inning. You can’t pitch like that. You eventually have to figure out efficiency.”
Radcliff recalled one occasion in 2014 when Berrios faced Blake Snell, last year’s AL Cy Young Award winner, in a Class A Advanced game.
Snell clearly was working on his changeup and breaking ball in his outing. The Twins’ plan called for Berrios to throw 15 changeups, except he got excited and threw fastballs almost exclusively in allowing one run in six innings with eight strikeouts in a dominating performance.
“He wanted to kill them and be the best,” Radcliff said. “That’s great Jose, now we’ve got to throw 47 breaking balls in your next bullpen because you didn’t throw any in the game.”
Radcliff laughs about it now. It’s all part of the maturing process for a young pitcher. Berrios’ effectiveness now lies in his ability to mix pitches and get hitters out with his fastball, curveball or changeup.
“What a progression this kid has made,” Radcliff said. “It’s all with a foundation of talent. He’s athletic. He has a beautiful arm stroke. He’s got all those positive things with his physical ability.”
Father, son, ace
The interview is over, but Berrios still has something on his mind. Joe Mauer’s number retirement ceremony the previous day lingers with him. He was struck by the closeness of Mauer’s family, especially his relationship with his parents.
“That’s one of the things I took away from seeing Joe’s story,” he says. “It seems like his parents were always there. They support him and were always there for him.”
It reminded Berrios of his parents and how they also help shape him. His father, Angel, played baseball and passes on his knowledge of the game. His mom, Magaly Torres, provides love and support.
“You have to surround yourself with good people,” he says, “and I have that foundation of people around me.”
His support system includes his wife, Jannieliz, and their three children, Valentina (5), Sebastian (3) and Diego (almost 2).
Berrios was 19 and in Class A when he found out Jannieliz was pregnant. He admits he was nervous.
“My daughter helped me grow up really fast,” he says. “To do well and do the things I’m doing right now, it makes me feel full of satisfaction, knowing that they support me.”
His two oldest kids are starting to understand what he does for a living. They will ask if he’s leaving for a workout or going to the ballpark. The answer is yes. The machine never stops working.
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