Shane Bieber was pretty terrible on Sunday night. In what is officially his second worst start ever, Bieber coughed up five earned runs in 2.1 innings including two very loud home runs by Josh Donaldson. It was not an ideal prime time debut.
It was also not quite prime Bieber.
For a pitcher of Bieber’s talents and what he needs to do to succeed, this is a hideous picture. It’s simply too much down the middle of the plate. I wrote last week about how he has the pieces to become a very, very good pitcher. But there are going to be growing pains along the way, and Bieber is going to have to make some adjustments.
One very obvious item needing to be addressed is displayed in his 2019 pitch chart.
Unlike the previous image, there’s a decided clustering on one side of the plate. There’s a glaring flaw here, something that more and more hitters will exploit as Bieber works his way through the league and hitters get more familiar with him. It’s that big white space in the lower left-hand corner of the strike zone. This is a bad look. If a hitter can seemingly eliminate fully a quarter of the zone — and really more like half of it, considering the imbalance between one side and the other — a pitcher’s career arc suddenly gets much less steep.
It’s something that’s been talked about before, but Bieber has been able to mitigate his flaw because of his preternatural command. By being able to pound that outer corner on righties and inside on lefties, and able to pair that with the slider to induce a ton of swings and misses or softly batted balls, he’s able to make all his pitches better as a whole, greater than the sum of their parts through tunneling pitches together in the same area. Plus he avoids the middle of the zone, not giving hitters a chance to really barrel it up with any consistency. This has been his saving grace. But when he’s off a tick, or not getting that outside edge call, what happens looks basically like Sunday night.
Major league hitters are very good, and the best ones are inhuman, especially Josh Donaldson.
One a hung slider with too much plate — a death sentence for Bieber, especially when he’s not locating the fastball as perfectly has he has in the past - and the other really just an incredible piece of hitting. Nobody should be able to hit a pitch that high as far as Donaldson did.
That’s why that changeup is such a key piece for Bieber. It opens up that other quarter of the zone because it gets that arm-side run he so desperately needs. A pitch that works like that opens up the rest of the plate and gives him way more margin for error, because of the indecision it places in the hitter’s head. He just needs to throw it more than 4.9% of the time.
So Sunday wasn’t a referendum on Bieber, any more than his start In Detroit or Seattle was. It was just his first time this year facing a potentially elite lineup. We learned something about the Braves and just how good they are, and hopefully Bieber learned something about his own approach, his own repertoire. He’s still just 23 years old. That alone makes what we saw more encouraging than demoralizing. One hopes, anyway.