All-Star Game MVP Shane Bieber put on another masterclass on Wednesday, authoring his second career complete game shutout, allowing a single hit to the Toronto Blue Jays.
In talking about Bieber, the organization largely notes his mental maturity, even relatively compared to his age as a former college arm. Manager Terry Francona used the term again following the best start of Bieber’s career. That maturity has facilitated his quick rise to the big leagues, and that has largely been the same theme propelling him to stardom in just 40 major league starts.
The Blue Jays are not an offensive juggernaut, currently ranking 26th in the league in wRC+, and 27th in both wOBA and OPS. Regardless, what Bieber did Wednesday required a heavy dose of craftiness, something the 24-year-old has in spades, thanks to an apparent growth mindset.
Bieber’s masterpiece involved his normal brand of command and four-pitch mix, combined with the savvy game-calling of his battery-mates, this time backup catcher Kevin Plawecki. Though as the season has gone on, the righty has undergone some upgrades in his arsenal.
Unsurprisingly, Bieber’s most commonly used two-pitch sequences on Wednesday were his four-seam fastball and slider combo (16 instances, six of which were the first two pitches of a given plate appearance). That was followed up by — you guessed it — slider-fastball (14 times, once to start an at-bat).
Unfortunately at this time, Baseball Prospectus’ tunneling leaderboards are down as they switch towards an updated version of their leaderboards. That doesn’t mean we cannot get a look at what Bieber’s fastball-slider tunnel looked like.
In the sixth inning, while sitting Danny Jansen, Teoscar Hernandez and Brandon Drury down in order, Bieber threw eight pitches — four fastballs and four sliders. This is what that looked like to the Jays trio, according to Statcast.
Maybe not the clean numbers we prefer normally, but a pretty good illustration of what Toronto saw by-and-large.
The slider was virtually untouchable for Bieber on Wednesday, garnering an average exit velocity of 83.2 mph on five balls in play. The pitch also produced seven whiffs, five foul balls, and two called strikes.
That success is probably owed a great deal to its sister pitch, that four-seamer. Bieber used his fastball as his initial offering to 17 of the 29 batters he faced, 14 of them for strikes. Location aside, Bieber has seen improved success with that fastball as the weather has heated up.
While it is not rocket science for a pitcher to pair his fastball with a crisp slider, which is more or less the point of the breaking pitch, having a fastball that actually keeps the hitter honest is crucial for its execution. Locating the pitch early and often is helpful, especially when the opposition does not make contact with a first-pitch fastball until the bottom of the eighth inning of a shutout.
Aside from his fastball success, the slider may also be bolstered a bit by some mechanical changes to Bieber’s breaking pitches. Early in the season, the righty was not releasing his slider and curveball out of the same arm slot.
Though a hitter is unlikely to be too terribly tipped off by a two-inch difference in a pitcher’s arm slot, Bieber has reduced that gap in release point between his pair of breaking balls. Even if the pitches’ shapes are not alike, the time it takes to discern one from the other has grown.
Nothing about these differences are concrete pathways to success, but there is still tangible growth being made. Continued improvement in results against a fastball does not tell us much, but the linear trend indicates gradual change, despite the small sample. The narrowing window of a slight mechanical difference shows the same thing.
Given what we know about Shane Bieber to this point in his career, continued improvement is in his DNA. The fact that we can actually see him growing is testament to that.