I am beginning to think 2020 will be Bieber’s Year of the Changeup.
The general magic of Bieber comes from the sum of his repertoire and its application rather than any one elite skill. His fastball is merely a solid low to mid-90’s, his slider has tight, clean movement without being sweeping, and his curve is pinpoint but not quite a hammer. We didn’t get to see much of that changeup in 2019, Bieber throwing it just 7.2% of the time. When he did throw it, it was more a contact pitch than a strikeout tool typically, getting a swinging strike just 21.9% of the time compared to 42.7% for the slider and 48.7% for the curve. Batters did log the lowest average exit velocity on it of any of his pitches though, at 8.3 mph. That’s something. So is this:
This is why I’m excited for him to make this pitch a real thing in 2020. There are moments when it’s absolutely absurd. It has 11% more horizontal movement than the league average changeup. Actually, it’s amazing that only two of Bieber’s pitches have above average movement — that changeup and his fastball, which is 15% better than average vertically and 11% better horizontally. They pair very well together, and considering he already works to keep pitchers off-balance, it is a perfect pitch to feature more.
Those look nearly the same, and end up in roughly similar places, but vary in velocity by almost 10 mph, and the change looks much meatier for a bit there. This pairing, combined with a nice slider he’s already used to lethal effectiveness, means he could dominate every segment of the zone.
It wasn’t the most effective pitch Bieber had in 2019. It did get knocked around a bit with hitters notching a .324 wOBA against it, basically the league average. He was a little unlucky with it too - take a look at this one to Yoan Moncada:
That was about as perfectly placed as you can hope for with a pitch, but with the batter being Yoan Mondaca and the existence of the rabbit ball this year it leaped out of the park, one of two home runs Bieber allowed off of his change.
In general, the one glaring issue Bieber had in 2019 was a surprisingly high hard hit rate. Among pitchers who allowed at least 400 balls to be put into play, 43.1% of the time batters hit it 95 mph or higher off Bieber, the sixth-highest rate. That’s a problem regardless, and for a guy that can’t survive a loss in his control he needs a way out. In folding the change into the repertoire a bit more — and correspondingly fewer fastballs — Bieber would be throwing his best weak contact pitch, mitigating that hard hit rate. It could be a bad idea — after all, sticking with what works seems like a great plan. If he can get even better though, and he already has a pitch that has the makings of a great offering, why not give it a try?
It would be a great thing to see him working on it in Arizona in March, and read a handful of articles about his focus on it. He already showed tremendous growth from 2018 to ‘19, it can’t be that far-fetched to hope for more of the same in 2020.