There is little doubt that Cleveland Guardians ace Shane Bieber has been one of the best pitchers in the American League in the last five years.
He has a Cy Young Award that says he was the most dominant hurler in the junior circuit just two years ago. Yet, it’s clear the right-hander isn’t at his best this year. Something seems off, even after striking out 10 hitters in his latest outing. In that game, he also allowed three runs (two earned) against a bad Detroit Tigers offense.
After that performance, Bieber has a 3.55 ERA with a 1.25 WHIP and a 3.05 FIP. One would think those are fine numbers – and they are. But that would be his highest ERA and WHIP since his rookie year in 2018, and there are some troubling signs under the hood.
Rising through the minor leagues and early in his MLB career, one of Bieber’s calling cards was his impeccable command. Sure, he boasted two lethal breaking pitches in his curveball and slider, but his overall command allowed him to succeed.
That command he showed between 2018-21 has now evaporated, at least so far in a smaller 2022 sample size.
Command+ allows us to quantify a pitcher’s ability to do what he wants with a specific pitch. To achieve this, every pitch is analyzed to determine actual intent including elements such as the count, pitch type, pitcher trends, catcher’s mitt location and more. Of all the aspects of pitching, command is the most complex to quantify, and that’s why a machine-learning algorithm is implemented to generate the expected command for each pitch a hurler throws.
In 2022, Bieber’s 90.3 command+ is the worst among qualified MLB starters heading into Thursday’s action (league average is 100). Yes, you read that right – it was 102 in his Cy Young-winning 2020 season and 101 last year. It has been a precipitous drop-off, and the main reason we should be at least somewhat worried about his future performance.
Analyzing Bieber’s fastball individually, it’s clear that its command hasn’t been sharp in the opening weeks of the campaign. After finishing 2020 with a 111 command+ on his heater, it dropped to 102 last year and 92 so far in 2022.
Now, there are some good pitchers at the bottom of the command+ rankings, and command alone doesn’t tell the whole story. So let’s dig a little deeper. For one, Bieber’s fastball isn’t missing many bats. His 80 whiff+ with the pitch is much, much lower than his 103 mark in 2021 and 106 two seasons ago. Whiff+ is a metric that allows us to determine the rate at which a pitcher generates swings and misses (100 is considered league average there, too).
Bieber’s trademark curveball, which helped him be recognized as the best pitcher in the American League in 2020, hasn’t been the same. By whiff+, it has dropped from 191 (2020) to 153 (2021) and 137 (2022).
Perhaps influenced by the fact he hasn’t quite recovered his 2020 curve, Bieber is using more sliders than ever this year (32.6%, almost as often as the fastball, which he throws 38.3% of the time). The pitch has a 139 whiff+, the highest mark in his repertoire in 2022, but it comes with a very low 85 command+.
By taking a peek at this graph, it’s evident that Bieber is leaving too many pitches in the fat part of the zone, and not just sliders: fastballs and curveballs, too.
Leaving too many hittable fastballs in the zone has been a problem, not only because MLB hitters can punish a middle-middle heater, but also because Bieber is not throwing as hard as he used to.
As it happened with many stats and metrics described in this exercise so far, his fastball velo has been on a steady decline, too.
It was, on average, 93.5 mph in 2020, 92.8 mph in 2021, and it is at 90.7 mph this year. It’s easy to imagine major league batters punishing a 91 mph fastball in the middle of the plate.
Against left-handed hitters, Bieber usually opens with either a cutter or a fastball (64.3% of the time between the two); whereas he uses his slider-four-seamer combination the vast majority of the time (92.2%) to start an at-bat against righties. He goes to his curveball a lot to finish off lefties, and favors the slider to put away righties.
What is the main problem in all these scenarios? That he mostly tries to target the low and away part of the zone, and is missing too often this year.
The injury he suffered in June 2021 has to be part of the analysis, even if it’s unclear if it sapped some of his velocity or if it is still affecting his command. He went to the injured list with a right shoulder strain back then, missing more than three months. Shoulder injuries are not good for pitchers, even worse than elbow ailments. There’s no way to know for sure if this is the case – only he has the answer.
If you are looking for a more traditional way of noticing Bieber’s slide, consider his strikeout-per-walk ratio. The number has decreased for three straight seasons, going from 6.48 in 2019 to 5.81 in 2020 to 4.06 last year, and it’s at 3.29 in 2022 so far. That’s a worrisome trend.
Bieber’s ability to get strikes is just not the same as it previously was. In 2020, he boasted the fourth-best strike+ in the majors at 118, but the number fell to 115 in 2021 and 99.3 in 2022. Strike+, also scaled to a league-average value of 100, allows us to determine the rate at which a pitcher gets strikes, either called or swinging.
With less than stellar command, an eroded ability to get strikes and whiffs, Bieber’s raw value- (RV-) is rather ordinary at 96.6. Raw value tries to assess a pitcher’s true worth by assigning a value to every pitch of an at-bat, rather than just the outcome of it. Considering his RV- was 53 in 2020 and 80 last year, something is definitely not right with him this season (lower is better for pitchers).
Very few people, if any, were expecting Bieber to pitch his whole career like he did in 2020. That was a special year, marked by the usual small sample size caveats associated with a 60-game season. But it’s definitely not encouraging to see both his command and ability to get whiffs trend in the wrong direction when he’s just 26.
All things considered, Bieber’s eroding command and diminished velocity cap his ceiling for the 2022 season and have to be a worrisome development for the Guardians, with a potential extension coming in the future. This is not to say he can’t regain his velocity and improve his ability to place the ball where he wants it, but right now, he’s definitely not at his best.
Design by Matt Sisneros and Briggs Clinard.
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