Cleveland Indians

The Indians’ Shane Bieber is entering the land of giants

When you think of the Cleveland Indians’ staff in 2019, likely the first pitcher you’ll think of is Corey Kluber, the winner of two Cy Youngs, and the undisputed ace of the team since 2014. Next up would likely be Trevor Bauer, who’s equal parts brilliant, eccentric, and elite, the newsmaker of the group. Past Bauer is Carlos Carrasco, whose stuff may be the best of the bunch when he’s on, and is still pushing forward to put it all together in that spectacular year, and continues to give Cleveland the local contract discount. Past Carrasco is Mike Clevinger, who is currently making the news over a potential surgery, after a velocity jump, after a break-out 2018 season.

It’s a killer staff.

Then there is the 23-year old Shane Bieber. If you are an devout Cleveland Indians’ fan, he’s likely been on your radar since the Indians drafted him in 2016 in the fourth round, and really paying attention to him in 2017, when he burned through Low A Lake County, High A Lynchburgh, and Double A Akron. If you’re an Indians’ minor league beatnik, you get that minor league players just don’t move through the Cleveland system that quickly, unless they think you are major league ready. Jason Kipnis did it. Cody Allen did it. Jose Ramirez did it too. But I think you get my point.

The Indians knew they had a Major League starter on their hands long before he broke out of the minor league system in late May of 2018. What did his numbers look like in his short minor league tenure?

Bieber went 16-6 with a 2.24 ERA in 277 innings. He struck out 260…and walked 19.

Seriously.

He walked 19 batters…in 277 innings.

Now, this isn’t news to those that pay attention, and while it’s easy to get lost in the Cleveland Indians array of elite starting pitching, it’s perhaps time to notate the fact that Shane Bieber is part of that elite starting pitching. Keep in mind a few things. At 23, he’s the youngest regular Indians’ starter by five years. Bauer and Clevinger clock in at 28. Jefry Rodriguez, making his first Indians start, and who made his first Major League start with the Washington Nationals in 2018 is 25. Bieber’s 50 appearances in the minors is also a current low for the Indians’ starters. Carrasco has 178, Kluber has 147, Clevinger has 88, Bauer has 58, and Rodriguez has 109. Sure, there are different scenarios that bring up starters, but Bieber was never considered an “elite” prospect outside of Cleveland, and never ranked in any shape or form, by any prospect pundits as a top 100 prospect.

In 2018, Bieber wasn’t perfect, but he made his first start on his 23rd birthday. The average age of a Major Leaguer in 2018 was 28, and Bieber hadn’t been with the Indians’ organization for two full years yet. What’s most impressive about Bieber is he stuck with the club for the rest of the year after a couple of back-and-forths to Columbus, and while I won’t say he was spectacular, if he’d gone 11-5 with a 9.26 K/9, a 1.81 BB/9, a 3.23 FIP, and a 3.30 xFIP, and a 2.7 fWAR on any other team, with any other rotation, he probably would have gotten more than zero votes for A.L. Rookie of the Year. We all know that the award means absolutely nothing, but wasn’t he one of the top five rookies in the American League last year? I guess being overshadowed in your own rotation, and having that rotation living at the Corner of Carnegie and Ontario isn’t the way to make a name for yourself.

But forget all of that.

With Clevinger on the shelf, and with Carrasco losing velocity, questions of depth issues are running rampant. The Indians are already dealing with two weeks-long injuries to Francisco Lindor and Jason Kipnis, and the Clevinger injury is a huge dent to the Indians’ strongest and deepest position. Without surgery, Clevinger is likely out for the next two months minimum, and with surgery, Clevinger is likely done for the bulk of the season, if not all of it. Then there is Carrasco, who either has some mechanical issues, or a hidden injury. Either way, two of the teams top four starters are suddenly in question.

For a team saving pennies, and counting on its rotation to carry them to the playoffs, that’s not good.

Enter Shane Bieber.

Bieber made his third appearance of the season, and while it’s too early to say it was an important start, it was perhaps an opportunity for Bieber to drag his name out from behind the shadows of the Indians’ rotational brilliance. And he did just that.

Bieber’s bread and butter this year has been his slider, which he’s increased his usage from 2018 to 2019, short sample sizes be damned. Yesterday, he utilized his slider/curveball/changeup low in the zone to provoke several swinging strikes.

Courtesy of Baseball Savant
Courtesy of Baseball Savant

There are a few things that Bieber is doing differently early in 2019 that is worth watching over the coming months. The first is that slider usage. As a wipeout pitch, he’s begun to use it substantially more to keep hitters off-balance.

Courtesy of Baseball Savant

He’s using the four seamer 10% less, and the slider 10% more, with a subtle increase in a wipeout slider. The results, with small sample size taken into account, is quite interesting.

Courtesy of Baseball Savant

His curve and slider have seen a whiff% bump that’s fairly significant early on. He’s showing more of the slider down, and it’s paying off, and in turn his curve as a counter is more effective. Again, the small sample size is important to take into account, but if the usage stays the same, it should, in turn, keep the numbers fairly stable, with some slight regression.

But the changeup is something to really watch, as it was a pitch he really worked on this offseason.

That’s incredibly nasty spin, that moves down and in on righties, and down and away against lefties. He’s also changing his approach with regards to lefties, which likely needs a piece all its own. Bieber lived on the outside edges with lefties last year, but if yesterday’s game was any indication, things are a-change-in.

How good has he been early in the season against lefties?

Courtesy of Fangraphs–Bieber’s 2018 splits
Courtesy of Fangraphs–Bieber’s 2019 splits

There’s improvement, and over the coming months it will be interesting to see if Bieber can continue his development, or if this is just another one of those early April, I’ve pitched against Toronto, Minnesota, and Detroit situations. But if you watch the way he’s been setting up lefties, there seems to be a trend towards the better.

In a land of giants, it’s easy for the newest giant not to stand out. He may be just as good, throw the same pitches, walk the same ground, equal many of the statistics. But even giants can be overshadowed. In Bieber’s case, with one less shadow blocking out the sun, his excellence, and growth, might finally see the light in the Indians’ loaded rotation.

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