Most know him as number 57 for the Cleveland Indians. Major League Baseball got to know him as the 2019 All-Star Game MVP. Some are aware that he was a walk-on at UC Santa Barbara. Cleveland fans watched him start the first game of the 2020 season. His transformation from walk-on to All-Star Game MVP to Opening Day starter to dominant household name has been a quick one.
Shane Bieber will start Game 1 of the 2020 season for the Cleveland Indians on Tuesday evening, on the Progressive Field rubber that was so kind to him during the 2019 midsummer classic. The visiting New York Yankees will attempt to figure out what kind of transformation has occurred with the guy they chased from the game before the culmination of the second inning just under 15 months ago.
Last June, Bieber yielded five earned runs to the Bronx Bombers while only recording five outs. Before Cleveland fans fret, though, that was a different Shane Bieber. He was making only his 33rd career start, while Game 1 of the 2020 Wildcard round mark the 65th time he gets the ball in a big-league uniform. Twice the experience, and a barrage of strikeouts and limited walks since.
In fact, Bieber’s date with the Yankees 15 months ago marked a significant changing of the tide in his career trajectories. He started to iron it out for the stretch run in 2019 and for the bona fide Cy Young campaign in 2020. Now, he’s the premier starter in baseball.
As his numbers have evolved, Bieber’s arsenal has been everchanging, too. Swinging strike rate is a foundational input into elevated strikeout clips, and the pending Cy Young winner has been hiking that rate up in a hurry since that June day last summer. If you notice where the Yankees start from 2019 occurs, it’s readily apparent that his ability to miss bats has risen at a pace that is consistent with his increased dependence on the knuckle curve.
According to weighted pitch values, the only more effective curve on a per pitch basis among the qualified starters was tossed by Adam Wainright. The main difference there, is that Wainright couldn’t find another above average offering, while Bieber has also historically been able to extract objective value from his fastball, cutter, and slider in addition to the wipeout hook. His ability to locate everything while minimizing the spinners or hangers or even hittable pitches is what makes him tick.
A common theme for Cleveland starters over the last several years, a period in which they have taken center stage of pitching development conversations, has been avoidance of the fastballs. Organizationally, they’ve pushed all of their chips in on curveballs and sliders. Hitters generally perform well against straight pitches, so they’ve simply… stopped throwing them. Only Boston Red Sox starters tossed a smaller percentage of fastballs in 2020. ((((insert trouble with curve link)))
That dependence on offspeed offerings extends to the forefront of Shane Bieber’s success in 2020, and will continue to be the storyline Tuesday night against the New York Yankees. Bieber relied on his fastball 37 percent of the time and his curve 27 percent of the time… a miniscule relative difference that paid frequent dividends every fifth day.
The highly touted Yankee offense, led by fringe MVP candidates DJ LeMahieu and Luke Voit, was overwhelmingly mediocre against curveballs in 2020. For a guy like LeMahieu that has dominated curveballs throughout his career, you will see Bieber attack with his cutter. When it is Luke Voit and most of the other Yankees’ turns in the box, expect to see a steady dose of curves, likely exceeding the 30 percent usage range.
The genuinely confounding part of the Yankees 2020 season is their inability to approach even remote effectiveness away from the bandbox that is Yankee Stadium. Their 146 wRC+ and 67 home runs at home were tops across all of baseball. However, they hit the second fewest (27) homers of any team in road games and paired that with an 86 wRC+, good for 23rd among all teams. wRC+, being an all-encompassing hitting metric that properly weights extra base hits and walks, also accounts for park factors so this stark contrast between home and road hitting metrics is inexplicable, albeit in a condensed 60 game regular season. It is important to note that such a stark contrast between home and road splits is some parts variance, but the degree of this contrast leads to increased confidence that there is just something that hasn’t clicked for that offense in road games.
Soon-to-be Cy Bieber takes the hill against former Tribe farmhands Giovanny Urshela and potentially Clint Frazier. It sounds as though Aaron Boone is mulling over whether Brett Gardner or Clint Frazier will start the game in left field. Additionally, Kyle Higashioka will handle catching duties instead of the highly touted but slumping Gary Sanchez.
Expect the Yankees lineup to look something like this:
DJ LeMahieu 1B – Aaron Judge RF – Aaron Hicks CF – Luke Voit DH – Gio Urshela 3B – Gleyber Torres SS – Brett Gardner/Clint Frazier LF – Kyle Higoshioka C – Tyler Wade 2B
All of these players are very capable hitters against righties over the last couple years, but one cannot compare Shane Bieber to any old right-hander. His synchronization of command and control, the ability to make any pitch do what he wants it to and in the spot that he wants it, are in the highest echelon possible. Get the popcorn ready as the kid who went from walk-on to Cy Young in only six years makes his postseason debut against the New York Yankees.