The Indians are rife with pitchers realizing their potential. Carlos Carrasco is probably his best self, Trevor Bauer is a pitching computer who can only overclock at this point, Corey Kluber has stacked Cy Youngs, and Mike Clevinger has a year and a half of goodness behind him already. Then there’s Shane Bieber.
Still young, he’s shown himself to have the stuff to be something greater. When pitchers go from potential-ridden to actually very good, usually it’s something obvious — a velocity leap, a new wipeout pitch, or even something like a new motion or positioning on the rubber. But what about the little things, like pitch selection and placement? What if that’s the solution for Bieber?
This idea stems from a piece in FanGraphs on Rockies pitcher Kyle Freeland. This winter and spring he’s worked with his catcher Chris Iannetta more on sequencing and pitch placement, in an effort to rewrite the book on him and give hitters less to go on. It’s the “pitching” part of pitching. Bieber could do with a bit more of that in his game, if only because the sheer stuff isn’t there. His slider rates well, but that’s likely as much about location and tunneling as it is actual break. Here’s his pitch type by location, according to StatCast, looks like this:
It tells a story or two, like how great he is at hitting the edges with his four-seam, and more generally the location to expect based on pitch. He really pounds the zone, doesn’t he.
More notable is his pitch chart to left-handed hitters. The southpaw is something Bieber simply has to get better at handling. They owned a .383 wOBA against him last season, fully 100 points higher than righties, and equivalent to facing Freddie Freeman every time he saw a lefty. He attacked them like so:
So you get an idea of how he went after lefties — attacking the outside edge with fastballs and trying to get grounders and K’s with curves and sliders down in the zone. They almost never saw sliders outside, and the same with inside fastballs. Hitters catch on to trends, though. On pitches on that outside edge lefties went 18-for-42 according to Baseball Savant, good for a .476 wOBA. Pitching out there is supposed to be safe, right? Evidently, the hitters didn’t get the memo.
But that’s not to say he’s finished. Last week I wrote about how I thought more changeups would help Bieber because while he doesn’t get a ton of movement and his fastball has life like an insurance adjuster from Omaha, using deception and tunneling these pitches together makes everything better. Plus, he’s flashed a nice little off-speed thing this spring.
Take a look:
Shane Bieber, Nasty Changeup. pic.twitter.com/Q9cyfDa8su— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) March 4, 2019
It’s not always going to move two feet and make Eric Hosmer look like a little leaguer, but it’s a tool he should use. And not just on the outside corner. It’s a tough mental hurdle to get over, but a changeup down and in to a lefty could be a brain breaker for Bieber. If it’s thrown poorly it’s going to get hammered, and if he throws without conviction it’s going to get hammered. But located properly, and with some semblance of that movement he flashed against Hosmer earlier this week, he could open up a whole new world of sequencing and locating.
The changeup is just a piece of it, but that’s what Bieber needs to do, is piece together his breakout from a selection of merely solid at best pitches and good location that’s hard to plan for. Moving it around, back-dooring sliders and throwing down-and-in changes to lefties, using his preternatural control to the most optimal lethality, that’s where he can be great. There are lots of adages in pitching, old knowledge and pithy sayings that are the “way it’s always been done”, and Bieber has adhered to them in his rookie year. He just needs to break them to break through.