Shane Bieber, currently the number three Indians prospect on MLB Pipeline’s rankings, is right where he should be. The 23-year-old pitcher has carried a Corey Kluber-esque strikeout-to-walk ratio at every level in the minors, yet, somehow, he only just recently made MLB Pipeline’s top-10 Indians prospects, and that’s one of the most generous rankings for Bieber.
Prior to 2018, Bieber was on no top-10 Indians prospects lists that I can find. Baseball Prospectus had Adam Plutko and Brady Aiken on their 2017 top-10 list — no mention of Bieber in the entire article. FanGraphs’ top-10 list (released in November of 2016), only has Bieber as a footnote and it doesn’t seem very high on him:
Shane Bieber, RHP- A strike-throwing righty with average fastball/slider combination, Bieber features very little projection. The fastball lacks movement but a big stride and short arm action aid in deception. Up-and-down type of arm.
On Minor League Ball’s list, curated by the highly respected John Sikels, Bieber barely makes the top-20:
20) Shane Bieber, RHP, Grade C+: Age 21, fourth round pick in 2016 from University of California Santa Barbara; posted 0.38 ERA in 24 innings in New York-Penn League with stellar 21/2 K/BB; should follow Adam Plutko path with 90 MPH fastball, solid slider and change-up, excellent command and control; the Indians have a good track record at getting the best out of this type of pitcher. ETA 2019.
Even Let’s Go Tribe’s own top prospect list, which is voted on by thousands of pretty dang education Indians fans, had Bieber nowhere in the top 20 in 2017.
The universal takeaway from early scouting reports seems to be simply, “He has all the tools, great pitches, great command, but I don’t know doesn’t project ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.”
Most likely the culprit is low velocity, because Bieber sits in the mid-90s at best on a good day and even that “spike” in velocity came about recently. But he also has four quality pitches to work with — a fastball, curveball, slider, and changeup. He spun all that into just 10 walks in the entire 2017 minor league season, and then people started to take notice.
He rocketed up to number 11 on MLB Pipeline’s list after the season, and he now sits at three. Let’s Go Tribe readers voted him as the number five Indians prospect, which is where he also sits on Baseball Prospectus’ and FanGraphs’ latest rankings.
His rise eventually came, but make no mistake about it: Everyone in baseball missed this guy. Keith Law humorously admitted it, and even tried to sneak a Justin Bieber lyric past the massive intersect of people following both Justin Bieber and Keith Law on Twitter. Law was far from the only big-name scout to not view Bieber as a top prospect early on, though.
Quietly drafted in the fourth round of the 2016 draft after three years at UC Santana Barbara, Bieber was viewed as a safe pick by the Indians, who were hoarding these kind of control pitchers who lacked fiery stuff. It was the same year they drafted Aaron Civale (another control-based pitcher who has a walk rate under 1.00 in his minor-league career to this point), and one year after drafting pitchers with six of their top 10 picks.
His walk rate in college, as a teenager through his 21-year-old final season, was very good, but very human — it normally hovered around one batter per nine innings. He was, and still is, a “strike-thrower” but in the same way that Jose Ramirez is a “contact hitter.” A lot of early scouting reports used it as an off-hand way to say that he can throw the ball into the little box up there, but that doesn’t mean he’ll ever do something crazy like turn into a great pitcher or debut on a playoff-bound team at 22 years old.
To be fair, it’s not a completely dishonest way to look at someone who is only a “strike-thrower.” Being able to avoid walking people is not enough on its own to be a dominant pitcher. Josh Tomlin has the lowest walk rate of any pitcher in the last 60 years, but he doesn’t have any level of strikeout ability and he gives up a ton of home runs.
But, you see, Bieber doesn’t have that issue.
Throughout his minor-league career, Bieber has struck out around eight to nine batters per innings, depending on the level, all while walking almost no one from the depths of short-season ball all the way to Triple-A.
As FanGraphs noted in their most recent scouting report of Bieber, where they had him ranked as the Tribe’s fifth overall prospect, he effectively works away from righties with a great slider and they acknowledge that there’s a decent chance he blows by scouts’ previous expectations because of his impeccable command. It’s a glowing review in contrast to theirs and others previous reports, one that shows just how much Bieber has done for his perception over the last year.
He sits 90-95, has touched 96, mixes in the breaking balls to various locations, and works in more changeups later in starts. Bieber works away from righties, using his fastball and slider in sequence very effectively. He locates his slider in a spot that is equal parts enticing and unhittable, and this trait runs through a lot of the pitchers who exceed scouting expectations and make a big-league impact with just solid stuff. It’s an above-average pitch on its own but garnered an elite swinging-strike rate last year. The stuff, alone, projects to the back of a rotation, but Bieber’s ability to locate gives him a chance to be a mid-rotation arm. It’s possible he has elite command and becomes something more.
The answer to how we all missed Shane Bieber is simple: His walk rate was merely good in college, he wasn’t flashy enough with triple-digit velocity to get on anyone’s radar, and scouts are too quick to discount pitchers who can avoid walks, strike batters out, and avoid home runs in the minors.
He’ll get his chance to prove everyone wrong tonight.