Last year’s Cleveland Indians had four pitchers throw at least 175 innings while striking out at least a batter per inning with an ERA+ of 125 or better. No other team in MLB history has boasted more than two pitchers meeting all three of those cutoffs. Even taking out the strikeout requirement, which biases the results toward teams playing in the high-strikeout modern era, only two other teams since World War II—the 2016 Cubs and 1997 Atlanta Braves—had so many pitchers throw so many innings with such a high ERA+. In other words, Cleveland had a historically great quartet of starting pitchers last year.
Cleveland’s best starting pitcher this year, however, was not among those four standouts. As a rookie in 2018, Shane Bieber had solid results—114 2/3 innings and a 4.55 ERA that was good enough for an ERA+ of 95—with an exceptional K/BB ratio of better than 5 to 1, and a DRA of 3.32. In any other rotation he would be more than a fifth starter, and he looked poised to build on last year’s promising debut in his sophomore season. In fact, The Ringer’s Ben Lindbergh picked Bieber as his breakout star of 2019 this March, citing those strong peripherals.
With Corey Kluber and Mike Clevinger both missing significant time to injury, Carlos Carrasco out receiving treatment for leukemia, and Trevor Bauer traded to the Reds, Bieber has been the constant in Cleveland’s 2019 rotation. He is eighth among AL starters in both WARP and bWAR, fifth in ERA-, fourth in K-BB percentage, and sixth in raw strikeout rate.
The most astounding thing about Bieber’s performance is how many batters he’s striking out. Over the course of the season, he’s punched out 11 per nine innings and 30.8 percent of total batters, with a couple of exceptional single-game performances: 15 strikeouts in one May start against Baltimore, and three more in the All-Star Game, when he became the first pitcher since Mariano Rivera to take home MVP honors.
Strikeout numbers like that would be impressive for any pitcher, but Bieber was not a power pitching prospect. In fact, he was near the extreme opposite end of the prospect spectrum: an extremely polished college right-hander likely to make the majors but unlikely to become an impact player. Since turning pro, Bieber has added top-end power pitcher tools without changing the underlying skills that made him a worthwhile prospect even with his pedestrian stuff. At 24 years old, Bieber is no longer merely the fifth starter: He’s pitching like an ace by anyone’s standards.
Pitchers who end up near the top of WAR leaderboards, who headline rotations on playoff contenders, and who strike out 11 batters per nine innings tend to stand out for their stuff. Indeed, even aces who became notable for their intelligence and finesse—Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Zack Greinke—burst into pro ball with eye-popping stuff and learned how to harness it later.
Not all front-end starters develop this way. Jacob deGrom, for instance, came to pitching late but could always command his fastball. When he developed top-end secondary pitches as a minor leaguer, deGrom quickly grew into one of the best pitchers in baseball.
Bieber is similar. He’s a little like Steve Rogers—Captain America, not the former Montreal Expos ace—in that he learned how to compensate for a lack of physical power early in his career. When he developed a plus fastball and breaking pitches as a pro and stacked those on top of the command and finesse he already possessed, he turned into a superhero.
Being able to command a fastball is a prerequisite for a major league starting pitcher, but in the college game it’s an exceptional ability, akin to starting every plate appearance up in the count. Similarly, just about every MLB position player can identify and square up a 90 mph fastball anywhere in the zone, but even in the major conferences, most college hitters lack at least one of the strength, coordination, and pitch-recognition skills required to hit big league pitching.
Essentially, anyone who can throw a changeup, get a breaking ball over the plate, and hit a target with a 90 mph fastball can pitch effectively in the college game. Pitchers with exceptional command of their repertoire can toy with hitters and overmatch them with command just as spectacularly as a kid with a 100 mph fastball can overmatch hitters with power. And not just junkballers with weird arm angles—also straightforward-looking right-handers with boring deliveries and pedestrian fastballs, thrown one after another on the very edges of the strike zone. Command is everything.
Bieber, a 2016 fourth-round pick out of the University of California, Santa Barbara, has exceptional command. As a sophomore, pitching behind no. 4 overall pick Dillon Tate in the Gauchos’ rotation, Bieber posted a 2.24 ERA and walked just 13 in 112 2/3 innings. The next year, his draft year, he threw 134 2/3 innings with just 16 walks and pitched UCSB to the College World Series for the first time in program history. Despite being the best pitcher on one of the best teams in the country, and having a big leaguer’s polish, Bieber nevertheless fell to the fourth round.
A college pitcher with plus fastball command is like a college wide receiver who can run a 4.3-second 40-yard dash—they have tools that are an important part of the picture, but not enough on their own to portend success at the highest level of the pros. For every one player who develops into an impact professional player, 10 fizzle out somewhere lower on the developmental chain. Cal State Fullerton right-hander Tom Eshelman was a contemporary of Bieber’s in the Big West, and a similar pitcher but better in every respect. Like Bieber, Eshelman has exceptional command and pitching savvy, and he dominated college hitters like he’d come down from some higher league.
At the time, Eshelman, who is 6-foot-3, seemed like the better prospect—he struck out more batters per inning than Bieber, and over a three-year college career that spanned 376 1/3 innings, he walked just 18 batters total, just three of them in his freshman season. His worst full-season collegiate ERA, 1.89, was a third of a run lower than Bieber’s best. The Houston Astros spent a second-round pick on Eshelman as he was pitching the Titans to the College World Series as a junior. It took $1.1 million for them to sign him, which is more than twice Bieber’s signing bonus. In parts of five professional seasons, Eshelman’s been traded twice and finally made his debut with Baltimore this summer: He has a 6.50 ERA in 10 career big league appearances, and his fastball now comes in at just 86 mph.
What separates Bieber from similar prospects is that he developed far more impressive stuff after turning pro. After sitting around 90 to 91 mph at UCSB, Bieber’s fastball now averages 93.5 mph and tops out north of 95. That two or three miles an hour makes a world of difference against MLB hitters—for a right-handed starter, it’s the difference between a mediocre fastball and a plus fastball, particularly for pitchers with Bieber’s command.
And from the hitter’s perspective, Bieber’s fastball comes in even harder. Bieber keeps his throwing elbow bent and the ball tucked close to his hip during his windup, which hides the ball from batters until relatively late in his windup. White Sox starter Lucas Giolito adopted this technique for 2019 and is having the best season of his career, but Bieber’s been throwing this way since college. Bieber’s ability to hide the ball made a 90 mph fastball look like it was coming in at 93. Now that the ball is actually traveling at 93 miles per hour, that deception makes his fastball absolutely devastating.
You can see the bent elbow quite clearly in this highlight reel of his one-hit shutout of the Blue Jays last month.
Two other things stand out in this video. The first is Bieber’s fastball command, and the difference between hitting the target and being able to make applesauce from 60 feet away without William Tell’s son so much as feeling a breeze. That command allows Bieber to blur the boundaries of the strike zone by aiming for—and hitting—a spot that puts half of the ball over the very edge of the plate. With that command, umpires are more willing to call strikes on the corners and hitters are apt to get confused about what’s a strike and what isn’t. Of Bieber’s 215 strikeouts this season, 65 have been on called third strikes, more than any other pitcher in the American League.
The second thing that stands out is how vertical Bieber’s repertoire is. Most pitchers have some off-speed pitches with big, sweeping break, but while Bieber’s changeup—his least-used pitch—has nine inches of arm-side break, neither his curveball nor his slider breaks more than three inches horizontally, on average, from the release point.
A pitcher with a big, sweeping slider can only partially control where the pitch crosses the zone. But with so little side-to-side movement on his pitches, Bieber can aim for a horizontal spot in the strike zone and hit it, no matter which pitch he throws. In other words, his precision in the lateral plane allows him to throw strikes while exploring the entire vertical height of the strike zone.
The reason he can get away with this is his curveball, which comes in about 11 mph slower than his fastball and features about 17 inches of additional vertical break. The average strike zone is a little more than 40 inches tall, and an MLB bat is only 2.75 inches in diameter at its thickest point—that’s a lot of area for a batter to cover, given how small the bat and ball are, and how little time he has to react once he’s identified the pitch. The curveball, like the additional fastball velocity, is something Bieber has developed since turning pro. As a college prospect, his slider and changeup were his primary off-speed pitches.
Wilson Karaman of Baseball Prospectus published a scouting report on Bieber in April of his junior year in which he described a low-80s slider “with late vertical action”—a little slower than what he’s throwing now, but similar in movement—as well as a looser, loopier, slower version of the pitch. That slow version of the slider has either evolved into or been replaced by a genuine 12-to-6 curveball, which Bieber can either bury in the dirt as a chase pitch or loop onto a corner of the strike zone.
The pitch might be slow, but the movement is sharp and its location is precise. And like the fastball velocity, he’s been able to develop his curveball without negatively impacting his other pitches or his command.
There’s a truism about basketball players who have late growth spurts, like Anthony Davis: They learn to play the game as perimeter players, and after they grow, they can put a guard’s skills in a big man’s body. That’s essentially what happens when a polished command pitcher like Bieber suddenly sees his stuff tick up.
Bieber isn’t the only pitcher who has taken this kind of leap. The only MLB pitcher with more called third strikes than Bieber this year is Philadelphia’s Aaron Nola, who’s a very different pitcher than Bieber, and as a top-10 pick was a more highly regarded prospect. But Nola came out of LSU as a pitcher whose best attributes were his command and his off-speed pitches, and evolved from a potential no. 3 starter to third place in the NL Cy Young race when his fastball ticked up a grade and his changeup developed into an out pitch.
Jacob deGrom is another example. In one full season pitching for Stetson, deGrom struck out just 56 batters in 82 innings but walked just 16. The Mets picked the converted shortstop in the ninth round of the 2010 draft knowing that he was a good athlete and could throw strikes. Once he turned pro, deGrom tweaked his breaking ball and learned a changeup from Johan Santana, and all of a sudden he was one of the best pitchers in baseball.
Amateur pitchers with 100 mph fastballs or knee-buckling curves are easy to identify, and it’s just as easy to look at such a pitcher—a young Kershaw and a young Josh Beckett—and imagine what those tools could be once the pitcher learns how to use them. But in this age of biomechanics and computerized pitch design, it’s possible in some cases to learn stuff or velocity, those qualities once thought to be innate in pitchers. Some pitchers—like deGrom, Nola, and now Bieber—are learning how to pitch first, and developing next-level stuff even in their 20s after reaching physical maturity and after extensive college careers.
This is the next frontier of pitcher development: learning how to teach physical skills pitchers once had to be born with, and learning how to identify pitchers who can make the most of that gift.