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Shane Bieber’s rookie campaign points to bright future

The 23-year-old became a staple of the starting rotation in the summer

Cleveland Indians v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

At the beginning of the season, Let’s Go Tribe prospect guru Brian Hemminger claimed that Shane Beiber possessed enough talent to start with the Cleveland Indians immediately. Bieber did not break camp with the Indians but wasted no time in making a strong case that he belonged at the Major league level.

Bieber tossed 31 innings in Double-A Akron to begin the season with an ERA of 1.16. He walked one batter and struck out thirty. Efficient, you might say. The organization promoted him to Columbus, where he stymied opponents with a 1.66 ERA in 48.2 innings. Elite command continued to be his strength, striking out 8.69 per nine and walking 1.11.

With nothing left to prove at the minor league level the Cleveland Indians brought up Shane Bieber for his first start on May 31, 2018. He replaced Josh Tomlin in the rotation and pitched far better than the average fifth starter. The Indians went 13-6 in games that Bieber started, with Bieber earning credit for eleven of those wins. It seems Brian was right all along, and the Indians might have squeezed a few more wins out of 2018 had they used him all season instead of Josh Tomlin.

While Bieber’s overall performance is impressive for any rookie pitcher, it’s interesting to look more closely at how he managed to be effective, and what he might do to improve. Bieber finished just outside the top 30 among all Major League pitchers in fWAR with 2.8, while his bWAR tallied up to 1.1. This begins to hint at the main area of the game in which Bieber needs to improve: quality of contact.

Bieber’s most valuable asset right now is his ability to throw strikes. That probably sounds a little obvious when discussing a pitcher, but contrast his command of the strike zone with that of Danny Salazar, Trevor Bauer, and Mike Clevinger’s in their first seasons with Cleveland. While the latter players all touted elite “stuff”, they needed to work on command in order to unlock the full effectiveness of their arsenals.

In order for Bieber to do the same, he needs to start throwing more balls. He threw 48% of his pitches in the strike zone this season, the ninth-highest rate in baseball among starters with more than 100 innings pitched. If we lower that to 50 innings pitched, he still sits high on the list at 17th (Adam Cimber is in 1st, perhaps hinting at one of his shortcomings).

I’m not talking about bouncing his curveball twenty times per game, but mixing his pitches effectively to confuse batters and not being afraid to walk a guy. I’ll use an example from our friend Corey Kluber as an example of effective pitch mixing. Like Bieber, Kluber rarely walks batters. He uses his command to mix his two-seamer and cutter at the edge of the strike zone on both sides of the plate to induce whiffs.

Tunneling pitches like this is incredibly difficult, but as Bieber’s “stuff” isn’t elite (yet), it’s how he managed to record a K/9 of 9.26 this season in the majors. Many of these came on called third strikes. I’m trying to construct a leaderboard of % strikeouts by pitchers that were on called third strikes; Bieber sits at 38%, and among starters I believe the only pitcher with a higher proportion of looking strikeouts is David Price.

With Bieber, then, the key to continued effectiveness is less about whiffs but more about inducing weak contact. Hitters teed him up when they connected with his pitches; Bieber’s soft contact % in 2018 was the second lowest among pitchers with at least 50 innings pitched. We can point to Bieber’s BABIP of .356 and say that he had some bad luck this season — this is why is xFIP of 3.30 is so much lower than his ERA of 4.55 for 2018 — but I’m guessing at least half of the average above the .300 baseline is earned.

Why were hitters able to mash when they made contact? I think it comes down to Bieber’s approach. When he earned an advantage in balls and strikes he dominated. Batters hit .193/.200/.326 in these situations. When he tried to avoid walking hitters is when trouble struck. They mashed .409/.522/.727 against him when he fell behind in the count. In other words, the average hitter turned into 1941 Ted Williams against Shane Bieber when there were more balls than strikes. When he refused to walk someone and attacked them in a hitter’s count, they made him pay.

If Bieber continues to develop his changeup and breaking balls, then he very well might be able to generate a whiff rate that allows him to challenge hitters in the zone when he falls behind. Moving forward, though, he needs to trust the stuff he’s already developed and allow himself to better balance the risks and rewards of sticking to the effective approach he deploys when ahead in the count. It will be okay if he walks two batters per nine

In Bieber the Cleveland Indians have a fascinating pitching prospect who may very will blossom into an ace. He found trouble the third time through the order and after falling behind in the count, though these are issue many young pitchers face. If he can build upon his success in the offseason then 200 innings of excellence from Bieber in 2019 isn’t a crazy projection. After all, how often is a pitcher’s main problem that he doesn’t throw balls often enough?