Shane Bieber has been all but written in as the fifth starter for the Indians once the season actually begins.
He showed the bones of being very good last year, he’s healthy, and, well, that’s really all it takes, isn’t it? There is a lot to be exited about when a guy has Bieber’s preternatural control and, unlike Josh Tomlin, the ability to break glass with a pitch. There could be something there.
But what will we have to see for him to realize any potential he’s demonstrated?
That control, the solid velocity, the composure, all that was great in 2018. What wasn’t great was the 4.55 ERA, even if it was buoyed by a 3.23 FIP. Though that makes you think he could be much better than he showed, Bieber also allowed 10.2 hits per nine innings with a 22 percent line drive rate. That second mark would be tied for 20th highest with Dallas Keuchel and Jhoulys Chacin if Bieber was a qualified starter, and he doesn’t have the 50+ percent grounder rate that Keuchel is able to boast. His 43.9 percent Hard Hit Rate was two points higher than baseball’s leader in 2018 Cole Hamels. These are bad things.
The issue with Bieber in 2018 was his propensity to become a two-pitch pitcher in 2018. Not that he was throwing trash up there or anything, his slider having the 7th highest swinging strike rate among starters at 25.7 percent. Despite Baseball Prospectus describing him as a man without an out-pitch in their most recent Annual, that at least seems like one, or at least an opportunity to cultivate one. His pinpoint control on the fastball allows for the slider to be much more valuable even if it doesn’t have a Sale-ian sweep to it.
A big issue with Bieber is in pitch mix. In a lot of situations, a lot of counts, he gave the hitter a gift and let them eliminate pitches:
This is why he struggled, especially later in games. His ERA climbed from 2.70 the first time through the order to 4.10 the second time to 6.75 the third time. Batters’ wOBA leapt from .289 when they first saw Bieber in games — equivalent to Manuel Margot last year — to .382, or basically Anthony Rendon. Fifty-seven percent of the time a hitter could expect a fastball, and usually one in the zone with only middling movement. But that’s overall. If he fell behind, he tossed out half his repertoire. Even when he was in the driver’s seat he just threw too many fastballs. Going at a major league hitter as a two-pitch pitcher with no true elite skill besides command is... dangerous.
Basically, he needs to learn to not throw as many fastballs. In theory this shouldn’t be a huge problem, he just has to commit to it. He also needs it to not be just sliders. He’s not exactly peak Andrew Miller — he can’t go 50/50 on two simply solid pitches. He’s shown a decent enough curveball and hinted at a changeup, neither of which is especially special. The curve forced a swing-and-miss 14.5 percent of the time, 32nd among starters, and became a ground ball 52 percent of the time. The change was only thrown 3.8 percent of the time, and wasn’t that effective, only becoming a grounder 42.5 percent of the time and forcing a swinging strike 7.1 percent of the time.
There are twin issues here. First, being a fastball/curve/slider pitcher is just kind of weird. It leaves you a bit susceptible to opposite-handed hitters. Lefties already posted a .383 wOBA against him compared to just .282 for right-handers, so that changeup, or something like it, is a vital piece to Bieber’s repertoire. It wasn’t good for him in 2018, but his One Great Skill plays into his hands in that respect.
Like his slider’s ability to draw swinging strikes despite not being visibly dominant, Bieber’s ability to locate the fastball means — if the control carries over — that the change should be able to feed off it. He can succeed through tunneling his pitches rather than beating hitters with movement. He just needs to be less predictable, less reliant on just “throwing strikes”. Josh Tomlin even admitted the other day to FanGraphs that his method of attack — throw a lot of fastballs in the zone - was his own undoing by the end of his time with the Indians. Bieber has a better fastball than Tomlin ever did, but that doesn’t mean it’s something to rely on.
There’s no other real options, so tunneling the change and slider alongside the fastball is simply all we have to hang our hat on as we watch him in Arizona. It’s unlikely we’ll see some kind of massive leap in quality from either pitch - outside of maybe Adam Ottavino people don’t just instantly develop elite pitches - but just based on what he’s good at, and what the tale of the tape is on him to this point, mixing it up is vital to his growth. It’s not like this is a make or break situation, he just needs to pitch rather than throw. Seeing a legitimate third pitch along with curbing fastball usage, this is what a good Shane Bieber will look like. And if the curve gets good too, that’s just fine.