This interview was conducted in Spanish and has been translated. Read it in Spanish here.
When José Berrios made his MLB debut for the Twins in 2016, he already had plenty of familiarity with the game’s young stars: He’d been playing with superstars like Francisco Lindor and Carlos Correa for years in his native Puerto Rico. After an up-and-down year in his debut, Berrios has established himself as one of the stars of an upstart Minnesota squad this year, and he spoke with Marly Rivera about reconnecting with the stars of the WBC and learning from Pedro Martinez.
Talk to me about what it means to you to be part of this new “golden age” of young Puerto Rican players.
It’s a beautiful thing. All of us grew up seeing so many Puerto Rican stars, such as Iván Rodríguez, Juan González, and right now Carlos Beltrán. Many of us have been inspired by them. We had the opportunity to be with some of them during the WBC, we played with Yadier [Molina] and Carlos [Beltrán], and they inspire that desire and hope that one day we can be like them or even better. I believe that is the reason why we go out there on the field. Of course we give our best for our families and our future — but what they did is what inspires us to give the best of ourselves out there.
Have you known players like Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa and Javier Báez since you were kids?
I had the opportunity to play [in Puerto Rico] against “Paquito” Lindor. In fact, in the Puerto Rican Little League Championship Game in the 7-8 years old category, with one out left in the game, they had a man on first and we were up by one run, and Paquito hit out of the ballpark for a walk-off win. It’s something that I will never forget, and if you ask him, he’ll also remember it. I was 7 and he was 8. His team was Villa Blanca and I was with Bayamón. It was brutal.
I had the opportunity to play with Carlos Correa as we got older, when we were both high school seniors. We played against each other. Javy and I didn’t play together or against each other, but I always watched him play; we went to the same school in Bayamón, the same junior high school and high school. I’ve known about him since we were little kids. And that guy that you see now, that’s who Javy has been his entire life. It’s something that’s really gratifying.
Did you always know they were going to be this good?
Yes, of course. You do develop physically as a man, and strength comes and all that, but the skills were always there. It was something you’d watch and say “wow.” Paquito would play shortstop and also pitch; he threw the ball hard. Javy did the same. Javy played every position and threw hard. It was something you saw back then and you’d say to yourself that these guys would do what they’re doing right now in the big leagues. I didn’t see Carlos until later on, but I always heard he was a good player. He was a little chubby, but he always had good skills. And as he grew into the guy people have come to know now, he became unstoppable.
When did you start developing as a pitcher?
My dad was a professional pitcher and my brother pitched in Double-A. I grew up watching them. I learned by watching them and also learned a little from experience. My dad always let me throw an inning every game. He was my little league manager, and my brother was a coach. I would always throw an inning in every game and I believe that is why I developed a little faster when the time came to learn to pitch here at the professional level, because I have been pitching almost my entire career.
If you have to choose a major league pitcher that you’d like to follow in his footsteps, who would it be?
There are many Puerto Ricans who don’t get a lot of attention because there are players who have made more of an impact, for example Javier Vázquez, and other players that have put in great numbers for Puerto Rico. But people are always comparing me with Pedro Martinez and that’s something I really appreciate. It makes me proud; it really does. I had the opportunity to talk to him during the last WBC. He gave me tremendous advice that I put into practice and I believe that has been the key to what I have been doing this year.
Tell me more about what it means for you to be compared with a Hall of Famer like Pedro, and about the advice he gave you.
It’s amazing because people always talk to me about him because we are more or less the same height, we have similar action in our pitches, we both throw hard and both throw a good slider. I had a chance to talk to him and I really tried to make the most of it. We talked for like 10 minutes, and he spoke words of wisdom to me, because they really helped me a lot and I thank him for what I have learned. Everything [we talked about] was about trust, about believing in yourself. He knows that I work hard. He has seen my workout videos on social media. He talked to me about some things I was doing wrong; nothing drastic, but things about movement, that I needed to be more compact, to not lean in with the body and the arm too fast. Things like that. He gave me tips that have helped me. I got them; I analyzed them and put them into practice.
In fact, I used to watch videos of him pitching in the majors because I have always wanted to do what he does and what Jose Fernandez did, may he rest in peace. When pitching, their arms are always going fast, and sometimes I have trouble with that. I try to watch videos to make my mind and body get used to doing the same thing.
What do you mean by that?
With the fastball I tend to be more aggressive, but with the slider I try to be sort of perfect and that makes me slow down. And that’s not good. I have learned to do the same with both pitches. I watch videos of them doing it to get my mind used to doing that. They were successful in their careers, Jose Fernandez in his short career, and Pedro Martinez as you know is a Hall of Famer. I believe I am getting good results and I will continue to do so.
How is your changeup?
Pedro certainly had one of the very best … Right now I’m trying to be like him. I can’t tell you [my changeup] is at his level, but I hope I can get to that level.
Talk to me about the success you’ve been having with the Twins this season in comparison to last year.
Last year was difficult. This year, I can’t lie to you, sometimes I say to myself, “Wow, will the same thing happen as it did last year? Am I getting sent down?” But it’s nothing like last year. Things have changed a lot because of my confidence and the confidence that the coaches and the players have in me. The team is more united. You have seen it; we have played quite well this year. But if that comes to mind and I say “Wow, why did that happen last year? Why did they send me down?” And this year I understand that is not going to happen anymore and I hope it doesn’t happen again in my career for another 20 years.
Talk to me about that unity that you have developed as a team, which I was told includes a popular WhatsApp group chat?
It comes from the chemistry that we developed during the WBC. Yadier Molina created a chat group, and it was tremendous. Really, even now we [the members of Team Puerto Rico] still talk to each other on it and stay in touch and all that. We have also been checking up on each other throughout the season. So Héctor [Santiago] tried to bring that chemistry here to the major league team. I didn’t start the season with the team, but as soon as I arrived they added me immediately to the chat group and it’s been a great thing. We are always communicating. We talk to each other about everything, bus times, and things like that. And we don’t just talk sports, we also joke around. It has helped a lot.
We have great chemistry, all the Americans and the Latinos together. As people can see, we may lose a game, which is normal because we know we’re human, but then we come back the next day to give our best and do better than yesterday in order to win. We have been competing for first place in our division, which is different from last year. Last year we’d lose and have a mental block and say, “Wow, what are we going to do now?” Things are different this year.
Has the chat group impacted team chemistry because everyone is included, whether you speak English or Spanish?
Of course, we are all in it together. It’s not just for Latino players; it’s for everyone, Americans and Latinos. We all talk. We are always joking around with each other. Nothing personal. Just having fun. We believe that has made the difference. In addition to the new staff, things have changed a bit, but we still have the same level of professionalism out there when it comes to playing baseball.