Rationality is incongruous with fandom. One spends a lifetime aspiring to be rational, only to see that work dissolve in the face of sports analysis. Objectivity is merely an illusion, sidestepped by the desire to see a sports team from that city you adore ascend to the peak of their sport’s world. This unbridled optimism runs parallel to the Shane Bieber fever that developed last summer. There is, however, objective data to support the breakout, which should have Indians fans clamoring for more Bieber in 2019.
While he will never blow you away with his heater, Bieber has just enough velocity to hold his own. Residing in the low to mid-90s in this three true outcome era just doesn’t move the needle. That is, unless you can pair it with pinpoint command, which Bieber sports in spades. As a result, projection systems adore his outlook for this next campaign. Delving into why prognosticating algorithms share Cleveland’s affinity for the young righty is a venture worth pursuing.
To start, keeping walks down tends to pique the interest of the number’s gurus. Last season, 140 hurlers threw at least 100 innings. Only ten percent of those pitchers carried a walk rate lower than Shane Bieber in his first big league action. To drill down even further, only three of the folks ahead of him on that list struck out a higher number of hitters, including Justin Verlander and Corey Kluber. This speaks to the projection system love – limiting the free passes while striking dudes out an above average clip will always lend itself well to favorable future outcomes.
Outcomes and projections don’t always align themselves initially, though. As was the case with Shane Bieber’s 2018 statistics. Though the sabermetrically inclined would see that he was a touch unlucky on the balls that were put in play, Bieber’s earned run average allowed was a pedestrian 4.55. Nothing to blow anyone away, especially those who are primarily results oriented. In his quest to drive that earned run output down in 2019, Shane Bieber will have to walk an unorthodox line.
That unorthodox line begins with a plea for a little less predictability from Shane Bieber. Indians fans remember begging Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer to find the strike zone consistently at one point or another. This time, the opposite wish is surfacing. The key for Bieber is to hang out outside of the strike zone a little more often, especially with his first offering. The reasoning is two-fold, and the results speak for themselves.
First, hovering around the plate more often than you must with average fastball velocity is a recipe for disaster. As the scouting report begins to make the rounds, major league hitters will adjust. Once word got out about Bieber’s affinity for the strike zone, opponents eyes began to perk at the sight of those get-me-ahead first pitch doozies. Opponents’ success mimicked the frequency of his deliverance of first pitch strikes. More first pitch strikes resulted in an inflating earned run average.
The back half of pleas for Bieber to fall behind a hitter every so often is more theoretical. What good is a 70-grade command possibility if you can’t use it, anyway? With the ability to dictate where his pitches end up, Bieber can afford to spot the hitter a ball to start the count off, as long as he is doing so with intent; meaning he can’t go around just throwing it out of the zone for the sake of doing so. Perhaps it’s a slider that makes the hitter think twice about a follow-up fastball. Or maybe it’s a fastball a touch inside to set up a breaking ball away. Either way, operating on the fringes of the zone with purpose pitches should be the goal of every Shane Bieber offering that commences an at-bat.
The love for Bieber is merited, despite some unfortunate results. A step forward in year two should be expected, stemming from experience and improvement. He should see a little more luck on balls in play against him. He should see a little more luck on the sequencing front. He should be a little sharper on his sliders, a little more deliberate on his breaking balls, and a little more confident in his heater. This concoction, combined with his pinpoint command and tight movement on the breaking ball, will pave the way for a Shane Bieber that panders to the irrationality of Cleveland Indians fans’ expectations.