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The Importance of Tanner Bibee’s Breakout

The rook really made a name for himself this year

MLB: Cleveland Guardians at Texas Rangers Jim Cowsert-USA TODAY Sports

There was a lot of talk surrounding the Cleveland Guardians’ farm system last Winter, especially regarding the pitchers that were part of it. There was no doubt in anybody’s mind that the Guardians’ starting rotation would look like an absolute force in the coming years, even without ace Shane Bieber, whose future with the team is very uncertain, or Daniel Espino, who has been dealing with some serious shoulder issues the last couple years.

What many did not see, however, was how quickly they would be brought up and how big their immediate impact was. Names such as Gavin Williams (MLB’s no. 16 prospect before call-up) and Logan T. Allen were called to the scene and got through a really good number of innings for the Guards. However, one man stood above everyone else and had an effect on the outcomes of almost every game he pitched: Tanner Bibee.

The story on Tanner this year is that he was a very early bloomer. There were definitely some bumps in the road, such as some early command issues with his fastball, but he fought through them and evolved into one of the most efficient pitchers and proved himself as one of the leading candidates for the American League Rookie of the Year Award.

Tanner Bibee finished the season with a very impressive stat line for a rookie, putting up a 2.98 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, and 3.52 FIP while striking out 8.94 batters for every nine innings. If Bibee pitched twenty more innings to meet the benchmark to be qualified (and assuming those stats don’t change), he would rank T-5th in ERA, T-19th in WHIP, 15th in FIP, and 26th in K/9. These are great stats for any pro starting pitcher, but for a rookie? That makes it outstanding.

To further put Bibee’s 2023 performance into perspective, those stats are decently comparable with Corey Kluber in his first full season, when Kluber held a 3.85 ERA (not so much for this stat, obviously), 1.26 WHIP, 3.30 FIP, and 8.31 K/9. There is no way to predict if Bibee becomes the two-time Cy Young Award winner that Corey was, but he certainly looks to be headed toward the direction of being one of the most efficient pitchers in the AL.

Now, the stats only tell one half of the story. He was a great pitcher this year, and the stats back that statement up. But his value and impact with us was that of great importance. The Guardians had a rough go of things throughout the 2023 season. Everything that happened has put us behind the curve while trying to compete for the AL Central title. Questionable lineups and game-decisions from Tito, sophomore slumps from the plethora of the rookies who debuted last year, and bullpen regression all kept the Guardians in one massive funk.

What the team missed most, though, were the mainstays in their starting rotation. Shane Bieber, Triston McKenzie, and Cal Quantrill all missed the majority of the 2023 season. Bieber and McKenzie, who pitched a cumulative total of 144 innings, were both considered ace-caliber pitchers. Being devoid of two aces to injury, let alone one, is going to set your team back a lot. This is especially so, since the Guardians’ offense was much worse this year than in 2022, when they were mostly above average in that department.

This is where the rookies step in. Logan T. Allen and Gavin Williams both provided a lot of relief to a totally depleted rotation throughout the course of the season. However, with all due respect to the two, neither of them pitched as much or as well as Tanner Bibee has.

Bibee was pushed to the limits this season as a rookie, ranking 4th among league rookies in innings pitched with 142. Most rookie pitchers are held on strict limits for how many innings they throw all year (this counts innings that they pitched, if any, in the minors as well). Last year, Tanner Bibee threw a cumulative 132.2 innings with the Guardians’ minor league affiliates in A+ Lake County and AA Akron. This year, he threw 157.1 innings in AAA Columbus and in Cleveland. That is nearly a 20% increase from last year, which is fairly scary territory for a pitcher. He also never spent a day on the IL until he got shut down on September 18th. With the stats that he put up, Tanner Bibee was the ace that we desperately needed for most of the season, especially in the second half when Bieber was sidelined.

Now, let’s take a look at where the Guardians would be if Bibee did not exist, was also out for ‘23, or the organization stoutly refused to let him see the sun and call him up.

Well, I would suggest that the team would do one of three things:

  1. Pursue a trade for a premium rental pitcher early in the season or at the deadline (would set us back a couple good prospects)
  2. Call up Joey Cantillo along with Williams, who is an okay pitcher right now, but has great upside
  3. Give Hunter Gaddis, Zach Plesac, or Xzavion Curry the keys to the back of the rotation

Unless they go down the first path and match Bibee’s production with a rental, all of these options would result in worse outcomes than if Tanner Bibee toed the mound this year for the Guardians, obviously. But, how worse would it get? Much worse, the way I see it.

The Guardians won 14 of the 25 games that Tanner Bibee started. There is no way to prove whether or not those wins would have been lost, or vice versa, but Cleveland would not have won nearly as many games without Tanner as they would have with him. If we were to plug in someone like Joey Cantillo, who is still not ready even now, I doubt that we break 70 wins.

To me, it is simply indisputible that Tanner Bibee was the most impactful player on this team, and meant a lot to the Guardians’ successes, though minimal, this year. Doing what he did while pushing his inning totals way past where they have ever been, should be commended. Does Tanner Bibee build off this success and become the ace in this potential rotation of ace-caliber pitchers next year? Who knows. But what I do know is that he is a total stud and will continue to be an incredibly valuable asset in the future, as he was this year.