Shane Bieber had a hideous night on Tuesday, allowing seven runs on nine hits and not making it out of the second inning. It’s the worst start of his season and therefore his career, and only by the grace of God and Josh Tomlin is it not the worst start an Indians pitcher has put together this year.
Beiber is actually having a pretty terrible July in general, allowing 19 runs now in 20.2 innings with opponents hitting .333/.369/.598 against him. This is… not ideal.
Of course, Bieber wasn’t going to sit with a sub-3.00 ERA for his entire 20 year career, spent entirely an Indians uniform that will see him win five Cy Youngs and three championships. That ERA (and only that part) is just unrealistic. This does seem like a stunning step off a cliff though. Not that it should be overly shocking of course. He’s a rookie. Even if he’s a rookie who blew away minor league hitters, the leap to the big time is about the biggest in the life of a player. Even Clayton Kershaw had a 4.26 ERA his rookie year. The expectation with rookies is, as exposure grows, hitters learn the tendencies on a guy and learn to adjust and attack those tendencies. Which, based on pitch selection at least, may be what’s happening to Bieber.
Coming into July, here is his pitch breakdown by count:
By the end of that month he owned a 2.22 ERA and looked like yet another head on the Indians pitching hydra. But as the calendar flipped and he gave up 4, 4, 4, and 7 runs in his next four starts, he stayed the same:
This is a problem. It’s unsettlingly similar to before July. The hitters are adjusting. They and the other guys in their organization are seeing that Bieber relies heavily on the fastball even in heavy pitcher’s counts, they see that the change is a tertiary pitch at best, they see that when he’s in trouble he quickly reverts to the fastball. Five of the seven hits he allowed on Tuesday were off fastballs (most of them were hitter’s counts) and another on a grooved slider. When hitters have learned your approach, it can get painful until you learn what they’re doing and adjust. Bieber is learning that.
One of the reasons that Bieber flew through the Indians system was his incredible ability to throw strikes. In 2018 he walked just eight batters across two levels and eight starts. He also allowed 57 hits in 45 innings in the minors, six of them home runs. The one big problem with throwing a ton of strikes is that they’re simply more hittable by virtue of being in the strike zone. Combine that with a heavy dose of non-breaking pitches and you’re bound to give up a lot of hits. It’s like the reverse of the way Mike Clevinger pitched earlier in his career, walking a ton but allowing very few hits. The problem with Bieber is, hits can hurt way more than walks.
Bieber does throw a lot of strikes, with 49 percent of his pitches being in the zone. If he had pitched enough to qualify for the ERA title, that rate would be tied with the leader, James Paxton. As it stands, among those who have thrown at least 40 innings (Bieber is at 45), his rate is tied with Paxton and Stephen Matz for fifth highest. Which is a good thing because throwing strikes is good. Except he also has the fifth highest hard hit rate among starters according to FanGraphs at 46.8 percent. That is the difference between the minors and MLB- those weak flyouts and nubbers off the bat turn into missiles to the bleachers and screaming one-hoppers up the middle. The tools he used to get himself to the majors can keep him there, but tweaks are desperately needed.
The league seems to have adjusted. It happens to the best of pitchers. Bieber is far from talentless, though, so this is hardly a death knell. He has all the makings of a great starter. His control is so otherworldly for such a young pitcher, his stuff is pretty good too. Sometimes it just takes hitting a steep learning curve to learn what you have to do to succeed. Players can wallow in the thing that got them to a level - think Yandy Diaz and his completely unchanged swing. And of course throwing strikes is a good thing. But sometimes a pitch out of the zone is just as effective. This is a lesson that (hopefully) Bieber is learning.