Hear me out: Shane Bieber is one deep playoff run away from being the face of baseball.
Maybe it won’t happen right away, and maybe it won’t happen to the extent that some other “faces of sport” have risen, but in a game as void of a leading personality as baseball, Shane Bieber has all the makings of someone whose personal recognition is about to skyrocket.
On the field, since his debut on May 31, 2018, Beiber ranks seventh in all of baseball with 7.1 fWAR and he sports the sixth-lowest walk rate at 1.78 per nine innings. This season alone, he’s poised to enter the Cy Young conversation with the seventh-lowest ERA- (a park-adjusted pitching metric where the lower the number, the better) at a cool 69. He also ranks fifth in the American League with a 25.7% strikeout-to-walk ratio. And for the old purists, he’s eighth in earned run average at 3.30 and he has the second-lowest WHIP at 0.98.
The same pinpoint control that helped Bieber rocket through the minors leagues in fewer than two seasons has stayed with him, now paired with a strikeout rate in the double-digits per nine innings — something he never achieved in his brief minor league career. He’s already surpassed the 114.2 innings he pitched last season, and with 149.1 under his belt in 2019 he also passed the 144.1 he pitched between High-A and Double-A in 2017.
He’s great at pitching, and he’s fun to watch go to work with how he mixes up his attack, works in all of his pitches, and consistently paints the ball where he wants it to go. If I was introducing someone new to baseball and wanted to show them how the intricacies of baseball can be fun to watch and understand (or, at least, just as fun as someone with a blistering fastball), I’d show them Shane Bieber going inside and out on a completely over-matched batter.
On the field, everything points to Bieber becoming great. Or at the very least, very, very good.
Aside from the spectacle of sharing a last name with the once unfairly demonized and now just sort of tolerated Justin Bieber, Shane Bieber caught a lot of people’s attention at this year’s All-Star Game. First, by even being named to the team seemingly out of nowhere to replace the injured Charlie Morton. He then went on to strikeout Wilson Contreras, Ketel Marte, and Ronald Acuña Jr. in his only inning pitched. It was enough to earn him the MVP trophy, a new truck, and a whole lot of national media recognition.
Just this past weekend, Bieber continued to gain notoriety by pointing out that Topps mistakenly called him “Justin” on his baseball card. It nicely plays off Bieber wearing a “Not Justin” jersey for Player’s Weekend, and his general acceptance that, yes, he has the same last name of a famous singer. The other Bieber even acknowledged it on Twitter, sending Shane Biebers name and existence out to millions more followers. Intentional or not, it got him a ton of airtime across the national media.
Having a fun last name and great All-Star Game is a good place to start, but Bieber obviously has more growing to do if he wants to become a household name, or even the face of the game itself. I don’t think he’s ever going to have the talent to gain notoriety on skill alone like Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer or Pedro Martinez or Greg Maddux before them. But he does have some things that work in his favor to eventually be someone that every baseball fan associates with their favorite game.
The best place to start his post-strikeout mound strut. If you’ve ever watched a Shane Bieber start, you’ve seen this little José Ramírez-esque swagger walk he does around the mound every time he racks up a strikeout. Often times he’ll even do it before the strike is called; fully confident in how well he can place the ball on the corners.
It’s extremely satisfying to watch, mostly because of the way he times it perfectly with the momentum of his leg coming down from his big leg-kick. Then he casually walks off the mound as another devastated batter wonders what just happened.
Most important of all, Shane Bieber is just ... fun. He comes from the Trevor Bauer school of putting yourself out there, without the massive drawbacks of doing it too much. He’s never been afraid of stepping up and having fun with teammates — lest we forget that bright-eyed rookie Bieber dethroned Ramírez as the clubhouse’s Mario Kart King. He also has the adoration of his teammates, and a pretty excellent shirt from GV Artwork that Jason Kipnis sported in his post-game presser following Bieber’s last start. Shirts can’t hurt.
Of course, the competition to be the face of baseball is intense. Even in his own clubhouse, Francisco Lindor makes his case by being one of the top two or three best players in the game while also being one of its most-fun personalities. Bryce Harper had a real shot after signing a massive deal with the Phillies in the offseason, but it won’t happen this year with how quiet he’s been on and off the field. Mookie Betts should be considered, of course, even with the Red Sox drowning away their shot at a repeat.
But still, nobody has stepped up and completely stolen the spotlight of attention from their peers. Not through being the greatest player of a generation, and not even through being a generally fun personality. There’s a gap to be filled there.
Bieber is never going to be the most intense, in-your-face talent like Harper or even fellow pitchers Verlander or Scherzer. He’ll never be heads above the rest of the competition in being the best player like Trout, Bellinger, or Betts. But he has just enough pizzazz in each category — plus a fun name that he fully embraces — to at least enter the conversation. He’s just sort of a fun dude who keeps to himself, but also isn’t afraid to show his personality once in a while by embracing who he is.
Combine all that with pitching a handful of meaningful games in October, and it’s only a matter of time before your Great Aunt Petunia asks if you’ve seen “that Bieber kid in Cleveland.”