For a third consecutive start, we’ve seen Shane Bieber look some kind of excellent on the mound. It’s a nice salve to heal the deep wounds caused by Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco’s early struggles, and a reminder of just how absurd this rotation can be when they all get back to it.
Last year we saw Bieber as predominantly a two-pitch pitcher, and especially leaning on that fastball at 57% of total pitches. He’s shaved that back to 47% so far this year, though he’s upped his slider five points to 32.3%. But I don’t care about those two pitches. The things that separate good pitchers from great ones is the secondary stuff, pitches they can work with when their big weapons have abandoned them and allow them to get through the order a third time. That’s what will make Bieber truly great.
Those two pitches, his curve and changeup, have shown themselves to be pretty solid in their own right. I’ve written in the past that, even with his lack of truly elite break on anything he throws, his ability to locate in the zone and pound the corners with his fastball serves to make his other pitches that much better, simply because he can command them so well. He’s thrown a curveball just as much this year as he has last season, and it looks like it’s a truly sharp piece for him to work with. He dropped this one last week:
And nabbed a strikeout with this against Seattle on Tuesday:
It’s not some amazing hammer like that of Clayton Kershaw, but the tight break is perfect for the kind of pitcher Bieber is. Right before that curveball to Mallex Smith in Seattle he spotted a fastball inside on the black, meaning Smith was looking on the upper half of the plate, then broke it down to break down Smith.
This is why Bieber is such a joy to watch pitch, because when he’s at his best he can slice and dice his way without throwing anything demonstrably dominant. His ability to put the fastball on the edge time and again makes what would be a decent curve into something very strong. Not that it couldn’t improve, but as a tertiary pitch it’s powerful.
The pitch he needed though, the thing he lacked, was something to consistently throw to left-handed hitters that would run away from them and allow him to not be platoon dominated. That’s the point of the changeup. To be clear, he’s not throwing it a ton, just 4.7% of the time this year, a slight bump from the 3.9% of a year ago, but it’s about putting it in the hitter’s heads. He said he’d been working on it over the winter, and when he has it working, lefties may be in a lot of trouble:
That’s … bananas, even if it was called a ball. An incredible amount of run for a pitch he barely throws. He’s shown a trust in it too, willing to throw it Tuesday in Cleveland on a 3-2 count with two men on and two out to get Dee Gordon to ground out. That faith in the pitch will serve him well as the season wears on. Also, for a fun little comparison, here’s one Trevor Bauer threw last week:
Bieber’s looks a bit better here — the camera angle difference doesn’t help — but the key to it all is consistency. Bauer’s does that all the time, he throws it way more too. So far Bieber is getting 10.85 inches of arm-side run with it and 3.25 inches of drop according to Brooks Baseball, compared to 7.79 horizontal and 4.49 vertical for Bauer. It being as early as it is though — and the fact that Bieber has thrown just 17 compared to Bauer’s 64 — means it’s hard to make any real judgement. But it’s something to be excited for.
If either or both of these pitches continue to grow and develop, Bieber is going to be filthy. He’s already probably the best fifth starter in baseball, and has the pieces to be something greater. With his already preternatural ability to locate the ball he’s going to be a solid pitcher at the very least. Having Bauer on his team means there’s a voice in his ear pointing out where he could be better than that though, and seeing what his teammate has turned into has to be encouraging for Bieber. Like Kluber has in the past, I expect he’ll start mixing these pitches in through the year as hitters expect fastballs and sliders to be the main offerings. It’ll be fun to see where he goes with this.