As rumors continue to rumble about the Indians trading away one of their Cy Young-caliber pitchers, the pain that move would inevitably cause is at least dampened somewhat by the emergence of Shane Bieber this past season.
Though the 4.55 ERA over 114.2 innings doesn’t exactly engender a lot of excitement, the numbers behind the numbers - 5/1 K/BB ratio, 3.23 FIP, a probably unsustainably high .356 BABIP - make Bieber seem like a real candidate for mid-rotation starter, if not something even greater. MLB.com’s Mike Petriello included him in a list of 5 potential breakout pitchers for 2019. Now we have a couple months to marinate on it, and still a lot of winter to get through, what might that look like?
The elements that made Bieber an effective pitcher are simple. He has a solid repertoire of pitches, though nothing world-beating, and he pounds the hell out of the strike zone. This combo catapulted him through the minors as he over-matched with command and some solid stuff. Both continued in the Majors, where he showed no fear. He actually hit the zone 47.9 percent of the time in 2018, the 9th highest among starters who pitched more than 100 innings. His 4.7 percent walk rate also ranked ninth in that cohort, while his K%-BB% was 19th. As we all saw, his ability to throw more than 85 mph with his fastball - he averaged 93 mph on the four-seam this year, a shade above league average 92.6 - means he’s likely not a Josh Tomlin clone, and that this was a beginning, not a glimpse of all he could be. So that’s good news.
The bad news, or at least the thing that might waylay his hopes for a leap, is how often hitters swung at his pitches in the zone. While he ranked ninth in in-zone pitches, he was 61st in having those pitches swung at. Obviously hitters are going to swing at pitches in the zone more, because that’s the point of the strike zone. But this was a season of hitters getting used to him, and probably a bit of being overwhelmed with his preternatural control. He didn’t throw like a rookie, which is probably pretty unsettling for a veteran hitter suddenly shown this new pitcher. It would make sense that, if he keeps throwing the ball in the zone, and keeps leaning on his fastball a lot, that hitters will recognize that and attack more often.
And when those swung-at pitches were struck — which happened 85 percent of the time on in-zone pitches — they were struck hard. His 43.3 percent Hard Hit rate (Exit Velo over 95 mph) was fifth highest among starters in 2018. If this holds similar and hitters are more aggressive with him, it could make that hoped for breakout a bashing pretty quickly.
His propensity for giving up hard-hit balls had something to do with his elevated BABIP of course, but it should tack downwards in 2019 regardless just by natural regression. Only two other pitchers in the top 10 in Hard Hit Rate had a BABIP over .300. Of course, home runs don’t count towards BABIP, and Jason Hammel hard the second highest rate while playing in Kaufmann Stadium with a .337 BABIP. Bieber doesn’t have an ocean of grass behind him, so there’s a small chance that BABIP drop might also lead to a spike in home runs. Balls in the zone in this era of swinging for the fences is a recipe for big ERA’s and quick exits.
But Bieber also had a 45.3 percent grounder rate in 2018, so he at least didn’t give hitters quite as much of a chance to hit for extra bases. If he can elevate that number a bit — and with that control of his, it’s not out of the realm of possibility as he can work the edges, down in the zone and keep guys off balance if he features less fastballs, he is bound to have at least a bit of a leap.
Speaking of that pinpoint control, which is always central to any projection surrounding Bieber, his uber-refined mechanics place him perfectly to develop some kind of out pitch that can help that Hard Hit Rate drop. Before we go there, think back to Mike Clevinger’s first season in Cleveland in 2016. He had a tantalizing skill set - solid fastball, good secondary stuff, and he struck out a respectable 21.5 percent of batters. He also walked 12.5 percent, which was less respectable.
The next year that K rate spiked to 27.3 and the walk rate fell a bit to 12 percent. But the central part of his 2018 breakout to stardom was seeing that walk rate crater, plummeting to 8.3 percent while the K rate held near-firm at 25.6 percent. And central to this whole improvement was a refinement of his mechanics, encapsulated in his release point. Take a look at his year-to-year improvement:
He cut his walk rate by cutting down on the variance in rlease point. This also made him harder to track by the hitter. Now, take a look at Bieber’s 2018 release point chart:
It’s refined, even more so than a three year veteran like Clevinger, and even moreso than a two-time Cy Young winner like, say, Corey Kluber
Again, it’s elite control, he just doesn’t have the pitch to back it up like Kluber. Which isn’t a small thing, by any stretch. By Pitch Value, Bieber’s best pitch is his slider, coming in at 4 Pitching Runs. It’s his only pitch that rated a positive Pitch Value. For comparison’s sake, Bauer’s slider rated an 11.2, Clevinger’s a 13.1, and Kluber’s slurve was a 21.6. That’s what a great pitch looks like. Bieber doesn’t have one yet. According to Brooks Baseball, his slider only moved 1.4 inches horizontally on average, and was essentially flat vertically. And that’s his best rated pitch. His curve is a less effective version of Bauer’s - 7.9 inches of drop compared to 11 for Bauer’s - and his change has a negligible vertical movement profile to his fastball. It’s a difference of only about three inches, so as to make it less effective as anything other than getting it off the sweet spot of the bat a bit.
None of this is to say Bieber isn’t going to improve as he goes into 2019 and beyond. He’s certainly got the building blocks to be an effective pitcher. It’s just a weird reverse of what we’ve seen in the past, where a pitcher has a vicious arsenal of pitches but needs to refine his command to be effective. If anything it might behoove him to throw less fastballs, cut their usage down to 45 percent or so from the 57.5 he showed in 2018. He’s already demonstrated great control with his offspeed stuff as much as his fastball, so leaping into more “pitching” rather than just throwing could be his solution, rather than Bauer-ing his way into stealing an elite pitch from somebody.
Barring some kind of pitch development, and seeing what we have from pitchers across the league and even within the Indians’ organization that doesn’t seem unlikely, that control and improvement of his pitch selection would be what elevates Bieber. He’s not going to turn into Tomlin, but that could be a guy to emulate, at least in approach. It’s a different way to forge a breakout of course, but one that you can rightfully foresee.