Blue Jays manager John Schneider explains decision to pull Jose Berrios early for Yusei Kikuchi

Every managerial decision gets picked apart when it doesn’t work out. Blue Jays manager John Schneider’s fourth-inning pitching change won’t be any different.

Jose Berrios had been cruising on the mound for the Blue Jays until he issued a walk to the Twins leadoff batter in the bottom of the fourth inning of the teams’ wild-card series Game 2. Schneider immediately turned to left-handed starter Yusei Kikuchi, hoping to force Twins manager Rocco Baldelli to burn through some pinch hitters and swap out the lefty batters.

The plan backfired on the Blue Jays. Kikuchi gave up a single and a walk to load the bases before an RBI single by Carlos Correa gave the Twins the 1-0 lead. Kikuchi picked up a double play but it still allowed another run to cross, giving Minnesota a 2-0 advantage.

The decision wound up costing the Blue Jays, with those two runs being all the Twins needed to win 2-0 and complete the sweep in the wild-card series, ending Toronto’s 2023 campaign.

Schneider said the team had “a few different plans in place” for how to handle the Twins’ lineup, and said that Berrios was aware of the potential decision that could lead to an early exit. 

“He had electric stuff, tough to take him out. I think with the way they’re constructed, you want to utilize your whole roster. And it didn’t work out,” Schneider said. “You can look at it broadly and say it didn’t work out because they scored two runs when we did make the change. You can also look at the fact that it didn’t work out and we didn’t take advantage of at-bats we had with runners in scoring position.

“You can sit here and second guess me, second guess the organization, second guess anybody. I get that. I get that and it’s tough and it didn’t work out for us today or yesterday.”

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The decision certainly had some merit to it. The Twins lineup was loaded with left-handers, with Max Kepler, Alex Kiriloff and Matt Wallner all in the bottom half of the order, and Edouard Julien leading off. And by bringing in the southpaw, Baldelli was forced to turn to pinch hitters for Kiriloff and Wallner, bringing in Donovan Solano, who walked, and Willi Castro, who hit into the double play.

Overall, the Twins have been middle of the road this season against left-handed pitchers. The team posted a team wRC+ of 100 (league average) against lefties while ranking fifth in wRC+ against right-handed pitchers at 111.

“You look at kind of overall body of work, you look at how unique their lineup is, left and right handed,” Schneider said. “And you look at what we have in the bullpen, right-handed especially against their right-handed hitters. So short, three-game series, you’re trying to utilize everyone the best that you can and today it didn’t work out for us.”

Still, Berrios had been cruising, having allowed only the one walk to Royce Lewis to lead off the bottom of the fourth and three hits over the previous three innings. He had struck out five batters, and had recorded outs against Kepler, Kiriloff and Wallner. Kikuchi has been better in 2023 against left-handed hitters than Berrios. Kikuchi held opposing lefties to a .214 batting average compared to a .261 number by Berrios.

The call to pull Berrios won’t just be second-guessed by those outside the organization. Blue Jays utility bat Whit Merrifield called out the decision, though he said he did not believe it was what led to Toronto’s playoff exit.

“I hated it, frankly. It’s not what cost us the game, but it’s the kind of baseball decisions that are taking away from managers and baseball, at this stage of the game,” Merrifield said, per Sports Illustrated’s Mitch Bannon.

Given how well Berrios was pitching and how he had seemed to settle into a groove, the decision will certainly stand out as one of the reasons Toronto is going home and Minnesota is moving on.

“Jose was probably, arguably the best stuff he’s had all year. And coming into his former team and place that he’s familiar with, it was tough to watch it unfold a little bit. But at the same time, I think that when you’re so diligent with your work and you trust the people that you’re working with and the people that you’re kind of going to battle with, both on the field and off, you just try to make the best decision that you can for the guys that are on the field to win,” Schneider said.

“And Jose understands that. He is about as good of a competitor as you can get. You look at our entire starting staff and you can say the same about all of them. Wanted nothing more than for Chris Bassitt to be on the mound tomorrow. But yeah, I think as it unfolds, it’s a fine balance of being consistent and convicted with what you think is right and what’s going on in real-time.”

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