On Bieber, Breaking Balls, and Brilliance

If you love a good underdog story, you love Shane Bieber. He walked onto his college ball club. He was a mere afterthought as a prospect until bursting onto the scene last year to patch a hole in a dynamite Cleveland Indians rotation. He didn’t stop there.

This season, Shane Bieber is an all-star. He stepped onto the scene for the All-Star Game in Cleveland and mowed down NL hitters like it was his job. The levers he’s pulled to transform himself from fun breakout to bona fide front line MLB starter pay homage to the most pressing topics in today’s game. Incremental gains in spin rate on his secondary pitches have allowed him to transform into a pitcher that is feared when he takes the hill.

The most stunning transition in Shane Bieber’s profile is his strikeout rate. Throughout his tenure in the minor leagues, he showed flashes of strikeout potential but meandered around league average strikeout rates, or about eight to nine per nine innings. In his second year in the professional ranks, Bieber has struck out 200 opposing hitters in just 162.1 innings. This translates to a per nine strikeout rate of 11.09, which is well above the league average threshold.

Midway through August, Bieber’s strikeout rate is on par with the likes of Jacob deGrom and Trevor Bauer. In fact, only nine qualified starting pitchers across the league have posted a higher rate than Bieber in 2019. And he has done so without sacrificing his command staple, as only Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander have better strikeout clips with lower walk rates. 

How this transformation materialized requires a look at velocity and spin rate. While his fastball velocity has remained steady at around 93-94 miles per hour from 2018 to 2019, Bieber has upped the juice behind his breaking balls. His average slider has bumped from 84.0 to 85.2 miles per hour and his average curve has seen a bigger bump from 80.4 to 82.6 miles per hour.

While more velocity does not always mean more spin with sliders and curves, it appears to mean just that for Bieber. The gain in velocity on sliders and curves seems to mirror his spin rate gains. Here is a look at the gains in rotations per minute on each of these pitches:

Shane Bieber Curveball Spin
Courtesy of Baseball Savant
Shane Bieber Slider Spin
Courtesy of Baseball Savant

First, the curveball. The true representation of the Bieber strikeout gain. He’s leaning on it 20% more than he did in 2018 and to great gains. On a pitch by pitch basis, it is missing bats at a greater than 25% rate. Last year, that figure was south of 15%. This pretty much explains the increases in whiff rate and strikeout rate on its own. It has allowed him to transform the breaker from a negative to a positive according to pitch values.

He has parlayed this improved curve with a slider that is about as difficult to square up. Bieber has induced whiffs about 23% of the time with the slider. Though it is slightly less effective at missing bats, his slider has been more effective from a holistic standpoint. This is because the results when put in play have been demonstrably better, though both have been objectively effective.

Shane Bieber is leaning on his slider and curveball more in 2019. He threw breaking balls 38.7% of the time last year. This year, that number has jumped to 47.4%, surpassing the 1:1 ratio with his fastball. This is not new to Indians pitchers. His Year Two leap is bolstered by an impressive overhaul of his repertoire and a usage transformation. The usage transformation has allowed the command guru to keep hitters off balance as evidenced by his strikeout tallies and contact mitigation with the benders. Souped up spin rates and pinpoint location will continue to carry Shane Bieber as a front line starter.

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