In 2019 Shane Bieber was an All-Star pitcher for the Cleveland Indians. During last year’s All-Star game in his home ballpark he struck out Willson Contreras, Ketel Marte, and Ronald Acuna in succession on his way to becoming the All-Star game MVP. He finished the year with a 3.28 ERA, 10.9 K/9 (3rd most strikeouts in MLB), and a league-best 1.7 BB/9. He came in 4th in the American League Cy Young voting. It was a great year for him.
This year he’s emerged from quarantine on a mission. Granted it is just three starts, but he has proved that he’s the League’s most valuable pitcher right now. Through those three starts he’s thrown 21.2 innings, surrendering two earned runs, and striking out 35 batters. He tied Karl Spooner’s 1954 record for most strikeouts in the first two starts of a season (ESPN Stats and Info) and now has the third most through the first three starts of his season. At this point in time he’s struck out 44.3% of the batters he’s faced, leading the Majors. This is obviously a substantial improvement from the already-stellar performance he put up last year. So what’s been his biggest difference from really good to elite? To start, the addition of a different secondary look. Speaking with Al Leiter on MLB Now, Bieber cited the fact that he added a cutter this year. Now he’s able to back up his fastball, that only sits around 94 mph, with three different breaking balls.
He also highlighted the fact that Statcast had a difficult time distinguishing between his breaking balls at the start of the season, but what we’ve seen early on in 2020 is that he’s relied twice as much on his knuckle curve (34.8%) than his cutter and slider (combined 17.4%). That was a reverse from his usage numbers in 2019 where he used his curveball a little bit less than his slider (20.5% vs 26.5%).
In the past, Bieber has made a concerted effort to pitch hitters away and that plan of attack is no different this year. In an age where pitchers are trying to work hitters up in the zone, Bieber finds his strength in attacking hitters on the outer edge and down. 27 of his 35 strikeouts have been on either fastballs away or knuckle curves down and out of the zone. Bieber’s goal is to prevent the hitters from pulling the ball because pulling the ball leads to higher exit velocities and an increased likelihood of damage contact.
In 2020’s version of Major League Baseball there’s been a strong negative correlation (r = -0.72) between percentage of swings and misses (Whiff%) and contact rate on pitches out of the zone (Chase Contact %). Bieber follows this pattern as well and you can see that he’s showcased his swing and miss stuff early on in this season. He’s improved in both of these areas so far in 2020.
What is also interesting to note is that early on the hitters are allowing Bieber to get away with more middle-middle pitches, which Statcast refers to as “meatballs.” His Meatball Swing % has dropped by 13.3% from last year so far in this young season. At 56.5%, hitters are taking his pitches down the center of the strike zone at a rate higher than any other pitcher in baseball with at least 50 plate appearances, about 18.6% more than the league average. For reference, in 2019 Bieber was the 6th luckiest among qualifying pitchers in Meatball Swing % at 69.8%. This year’s percentage through his first three starts would have beaten out last year’s leader Stephen Strasburg and his percentage by 9.1%.
The other impressive part of his Meatball Swing % is that Bieber’s First Pitch Swing % has actually increased by 4% this year, meaning hitters are taking more pitches down the middle that aren’t coming on the first pitches of their at-bats. The meatballs being taken aren’t just hitters trying to “see one” against Bieber. They’re “seeing one” after they’ve already seen one…or two…or three.
We’ve seen the Cleveland Indians transform the careers of their starting pitchers and there is no doubt the 25-year-old Shane Bieber is an emerging stud in Major League Baseball. Based on his velocity and movement, Baseball Savant compares his 2019 arsenal to those of Taylor Clarke, Zach Plesac, Matt Harvey, Michael Pineda, and Adrian Sampson, yet he’s enjoying much more success than them. In that respect he’s very unique in terms of his success with the pitching weapons available to him. His talent at the top of the rotation is going to be key for the Indians if they want to make a deep postseason run.
Cover photo courtesy of Jamie Sabau, Getty Images Sport
My name is Sam Starosciak and I am a recent graduate of Arizona State University majoring in Business Data Analytics.