I guess Shane Bieber will have to take solace in his All-Star Game MVP (and the truck that came with it), because he just missed the more prestigious Let’s Go Tribe MVP. Technically, he tied our winner (no spoilers, though I’m sure you can guess) but lost by the first place vote tiebreaker (5-3).
In the unemotional world of numbers, however, Bieber certainly had the most value of any player in Cleveland.
FanGraphs WAR team leaders
- Bieber 5.6
- Mike Clevinger 4.5
- Francisco Lindor/Carlos Santana 4.4
Baseball-Reference WAR team leaders
- Bieber 4.9
- Lindor 4.7
- Santana 4.5
Baseball Prospectus WARP team leaders
- Bieber 4.9
- Santana 4.8
- Roberto Pérez 4.7
Not to say “I told you so” (I was one of the 3 votes for Bieber), but that seems pretty unanimous.
For those of us who marveled at his debut, Bieber’s 2019 breakout wasn’t unexpected. In 2018 he posted 2.7 fWAR/1.0 bWAR/2.6 WARP, which were all fantastic numbers for a partial season (just 114.2 IP). Despite our enthusiasm, however, projection systems still looked at him with skepticism. FanGraphs’ projections (Steamer and Depth Charts) had Bieber at 2.5 and 2.6 fWAR, respectively; Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS “really, really” liked Bieber but still pegged him for 3.8 fWAR; Baseball Prospectus was the most conservative, estimating he’d be worth 1.5 WARP. He beat every one of those projections by greater than one win.
So, if you are inclined to agree with the majority of LGT writers that Bieber was not the team MVP, can we all at least agree he was the most outstanding player?
When we look beyond the frame of the team and examine his standing among all qualified pitchers (out of 61), Bieber was top 10 in fWAR, K/9, BB/9, K-BB%, xFIP, and SIERA and top 15 in ERA and FIP. His fastball was the 11th best, his slider was 14th, his curve was 20th, and his change was 35th. In short, he pitched at an ace level all year long.
Looking at the micro level, Bieber’s brilliance was perhaps best displayed on July 24. The game, a perhaps forgotten contest in Toronto versus the Blue Jays, featured Bieber carrying a no-hitter into the seventh inning, allowing just the one hit (a ground-rule double to Eric Sogard) overall, allowing only just three baserunners all game, and coming within three pitches of a Maddux (Bieber threw 102 pitches). It was his best start of the year as well as the best start by any Indians pitcher in 2019 by game score, as Bieber owns the top three games (scores of 94, 92, and 87).
Zooming in a little closer, Bieber’s plan of attack against Justin Smoak offers insight at what made him great in 2019. The previous night, Smoak had been the hero for Toronto, hitting a 9th inning home run to tie the game and a 10th inning walk-off single to win it. If Bieber remembered those at bats, he didn’t show it.
In the second, after walking Vladimir Guerrero Jr. to start the inning (his only walk of the night), Bieber threw a terrific low changeup (above) and forced a weak grounder from Smoak into the shift, 3-5 for a double play. Then, in the seventh, Bieber faced the only real threat of the game from the Jays, as Sogard stood on third after a sacrifice fly and Lourdes Gurriel on first after a hit by pitch. With Smoak at the plate again, Bieber casually retired him with three consecutive pitches:
An outside fastball fouled off,
A whiff on a changeup at the bottom of the zone, and
An even bigger whiff on a curveball in the dirt.
Those two at bats in Bieber’s best game of the season can’t wholly explain how great Bieber was this year, but they go a long way. The approach against Smoak — one of the Blue Jays best hitters at the time, with a wRC+ of 111, and widely speculated as a trade candidate — represents the cool demeanor with which Bieber attacked the league in 2019. Despite the injuries that ravaged the rest of the rotation, which forced him into a starring role despite his relative inexperience, he just went out and threw quality pitches and got quality results.
He may not be the MVP in the eyes of a majority of writers in our weird corner of the internet, but the value that Bieber gave the Indians this year was truly great. It’s going to be incredible to see how valuable he can be next year and beyond.