Going Deep: Should You Really Belieb in Shane?

Dan McNamara examines Shane Bieber's recent success and analyzes whether or not it will continue.

Here’s a statline: 9 IP, 5 H, 0 R, 15 K.

Since 2000, with five hits as the maximum and 15 strikeouts as the minimum, there have been a grand total of 14 complete-game shutouts, and two of them were thrown by Max Scherzer in the same season. These are super-rare, and it takes a special pitcher to pull this off regardless of the opponent. Well,  Shane Bieber was the 14th man to do it against the Orioles on May 19th.

Bieber is certainly talented. He rose through the minors while managing a collective ERA south of 3.00 in both 2016 and 2017, and after continuing this dominance for eight starts at AAA in 2018 and simultaneously showing a higher strikeout upside, the Indians had no choice but to call him up and see what he could do.

While there were certainly encouraging moments for Bieber during the 2018 season, he left us all wanting more. He demonstrated absolutely elite control throughout his minor league career, finishing seasons with walk rates under 3% (!) until 2018 when he barely climbed to 3.4% over his small sample before his call-up. He continued to show that control at the major league level by only walking 4.7% of the hitters he faced over 20 appearances.

However, for the first time in his career, hard contact (and the long ball) became a bit of an issue for Bieber. His unwillingness to walk hitters finally caught up with him, and his desire to live in the zone resulted in batters putting a fair amount of balls in play with high velocity. Bieber was in the ninth percentile of average exit velocity for qualified pitchers on Statcast in 2018 and sat above league average in barrel rate, xBA, and xSLG.

Now, Bieber is certainly a different pitcher this season, and a lot of the numbers on the surface look quite nice (30.3% K, 6.1% BB, 14.3% SwStr, 3.23 SIERA, etc); however, you don’t have to look much deeper to realize that his current output is likely unsustainable and that the changes he’s made have potentially devastating consequences.

 

What’s Different?

 

The first thing that I noticed that was very different about Bieber was how he’s deploying his repertoire in 2019. Remember, he’s always been a control-oriented pitcher who refuses to give out free passes while striking hitters out at an average to above average clip, but in 2019, Bieber has turned himself into a pure whiff-seeker.

 

 

It’s immediately evident that Bieber has begun 2019 with a commitment to getting chases on breaking pitches outside of the zone. Why exactly did he decide to make such a dramatic change? Perhaps he was simply dissatisfied with the results of 2018 that I described in the introduction. There didn’t appear to be much need for Bieber to drastically adjust how he approached hitters, though.

In 2018, he ranked extremely high in CSW%, as of the 147 pitchers with at least 1500 total pitches, he was ninth on the list at 32.9%, and one of the more impressive parts of his game was his showcase slider. Bieber put it in the zone 52.6% of the time, which of the 91 pitchers who threw at least 400 sliders ranked seventh-highest. Still, despite that, it still had an amazing 26.7% swinging strike rate that was good for fifth-best of that same sample. It’s undeniably filthy.

So what was Bieber’s problem? Contact. For some reason, his stuff got hit really hard when hitters connected with it in 2018. So what was his response? Don’t let them make contact! Simple, right? Well, yes and no.

 

Cleveland, We Have a Problem

 

Bieber wants to be an ace, and is currently posting peripheral metrics that illustrate him as such, but unfortunately he’s not in a position to truly dominate teams with a level of consistency that we expect from the very best starters in the game.

 

 

This is a packed graphic, so let me give the summary. I’ve simply bucketed different counts together to represent being “even” with the hitter, “ahead” of the hitter, “behind” the hitter, or in a full count. The left-sided data compares league average xwOBAcon (expected wOBA on contact) with Bieber’s 2018 and 2019 xwOBAcon, while the right-sided data shows league average pitch distributions into each of those buckets for 2018 and 2019 and compares those distributions to Bieber’s.

For some reason, Bieber’s stuff gets blasted when hitters put the ball in play. Since becoming a major leaguer, he’s simply allowed worse-than-average contact regardless of whether he’s even with (neutral count), ahead of (two-strike count), or behind the hitter (hitter count). The good news for 2018 Bieber was that, at the very least, he was spending time in pitcher-friendly counts (neutral or two-strike) at an above average clip, so even with below average contact skills, he was still able to keep his batted ball data somewhat stable. However, 2019 Bieber is much different story.

His fifth-percentile hard hit rate of 46.7% is alarming enough, but if you look at the orange columns in the above graphic, you will notice that Bieber has seen a displacement of 4.6% of his total pitches from neutral and two-strike counts to hitter and full counts. This is extremely significant for a guy like him, as he now takes his below-average contact skills that appear to have gotten worse in 2019 and exposes them to counts in which hitters, on average, make even better contact.

Now, it’s important to understand even more specifically the repercussions of putting yourself in certain counts as a pitcher in order to further connect the dots on Bieber. If you’ve read Nick Gerli’s or my articles about two-strike rate, you would have seen this graphic by now:

 

 

By being in fewer two-strike counts and more hitter counts, Bieber is subjecting himself to situations where he’s now vulnerable to a higher barrel rate. Does this mean that he will definitely have one? No. But he does, and there’s a reason why: He still doesn’t like walking guys. When you’re behind in counts at an average or below-average clip, you have a decision to make. You can pitch around the batter and either hope for a chase or simply move onto the next guy, or you can challenge the hitter in the zone with a pitch that can potentially be hit very hard.

You don’t have the ability to dictate the at-bat and you don’t have bullets that you can waste on hitters who are in a mindset of protecting the zone rather than driving the baseball, so you have to sacrifice either your contact or your free passes. Luis Castillo and Kyle Gibson are great examples to help illustrate this alongside Bieber.

 

 

These are three pitchers who are currently average or below-average at getting to two strikes, and it’s clear in their profiles that they are making some form of sacrifice in their current state. Castillo shares a similar tale to Bieber in that he was actually a slightly above-average two-strike pitcher who decided to completely bail on throwing pitches in the zone after one season of mediocre batted ball data (league worst 39.1% zone rate in 2019). The result is a two-strike rate that sits in the bottom 9% of all starting pitchers and a walk rate that has ballooned. If Castillo wants to continue with this approach, he can, but if he wants to cut back his walk rate without changing his two-strike rate, he’s going to have to enter the zone in hitter counts, and you can be sure that his barrel rate will increase as a result.

That was exactly the case for Gibson this season. He had a very below-average two-strike rate in 2018 and decided to go the 2019 Castillo route of increasing your strikeouts and whiffs while walking those who get ahead of you and never conceding hard contact in a vulnerable count. Gibson appears to being doing the exact opposite this season, as his barrel and walk rates have almost literally swapped and his exit velocity has increased dramatically.

Bieber is now in a similar position. He’s behind hitters often, he still can’t shake the need to avoid walks that he rose through the minors with, and as a result, his already-poor contact skills have been exposed to more dangerous situations and he’s paying the price in the form of extremely hard contact and a barrel rate that is twice the league average.

 

The Outlook on Bieber

 

Honestly, it’s not great. Bieber demonstrated last year and is continuing to demonstrate this year that he has incredible upside. His ceiling is high, as he has two extremely good breaking pitches that he can throw both in and out of the zone effectively to get strikes. However, he struggles mightily when trying to keep hitters from squaring him up. Even when he puts himself in positions to succeed, he still can’t avoid being hit extremely hard when contact is made.

He’s gone from being a zone-heavy strike-seeker in 2018 to a chase-heavy whiff-seeker in 2019, and as a result, he’s seen a dip in his ability to consistently get ahead of hitters and at least preserve some semblance of weaker contact from his opponents. So why do his numbers still look great?

 

 

Bieber has gotten about as lucky as any pitcher could this season. He’s not looking down the barrel of slight regression. He’s looking at potentially being one of the biggest fallers over the remainder of 2019.

He’s already matched his home run total from last season in just over half the appearances and his 1.77 HR/9 clip (good for eighth-worst among qualified starters on Fangraphs) is very reflective of the 22 barrels he’s allowed this year. As illustrated above from a sample of all pitchers with at least 750 pitches this season, Bieber’s expected statistics (including the worst xwOBAcon in baseball) on Statcast take him from being average or even somewhat good to being one of the most unreliable pitchers in the game, and his owners need to be prepared for what is likely going to be a rough rest of the season.

Things are going to get bad for Bieber if he doesn’t adjust. Is there a happy medium between his 2018 and 2019 approach? There certainly could be, and I bet a lot of us would love to see it in action. But for now, he’s a high-upside starting pitcher with a very low floor and unavoidable negative regression on the immediate horizon.

Featured Image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)

Dan McNamara

As a lifelong athlete and Personal Trainer by trade, everything in Dan's day-to-day life is centered around proper human movement and athletic efficiency. He takes his physical expertise and combines it with a love for statistical problem-solving to deliver the best possible stories to you about a variety of topics. He believes that stats and scouting should always be willing to shake hands, and he will always stand strong behind what his eyes and the numbers are telling him. His twitter feed is filled exclusively with baseball and dogs, and if asked who his hero is, he'd probably say "himself in five years".

  • Avatar Dave says:

    Last year many scouts voiced concern about the hard contact he routinely gave up. It appears their concern was justified since he continues to do so despite trying to induce more whiffs and soft contact with more off-speed stuff.

    • Avatar Dan McNamara says:

      Yea it’s QUITE a drastic change in approach, and it’s been a successful change to this point in terms of outcomes. My questions are centered around sustainable success, because i just can’t imagine him fending off regression when his xStats are 25-50% higher than his Actuals across the board.

      Thanks for the comment!

  • Avatar Ro says:

    Im curious for the underlying reasons… Clearly he doesn’t disrupt the timing of batters. Connections with Pitch tunneling issues? effective velocity..?

    • Avatar Dan McNamara says:

      Lot of great theories! I’m as interested as you are haha. TRUST me. So interesting for an elite bat misser to be squared up so consistently when he’s NOT missing bats. Perhaps a topic for a follow-up article.

      Thanks for taking the time the read!

  • Avatar Facenda says:

    Interesting to read this and then note to the ride side that Nick has Bieber ranked #20 for ROS. What to think … what to think?

    • Avatar Dan McNamara says:

      I know, right?? Bieber’s fascinating. There’s absolutely no arguing the raw talent and the pure stuff that he possesses with those devastating breaking balls that he controls so well. It’s just gotten to a point now (22 appearances at the major league level) where we have to accept that his horrible contact skills are a real problem for him and prepare ourselves for what is very likely going to be negative regression. Does this mean Bieber is not a top 20-30 starter? No, not necessarily, as the depth of SP has diminished quite significantly and very few guys possess his upside. But to expect him to maintain this output for the remainder of the season would be foolish in my opinion given the significant chasms between his Expected and Actual statistics.

      Thanks for reading!

  • Avatar Sam says:

    Is this a really long, convoluted joke? Bieber has given up an average of 5 hits per game this year with a ground ball percentage of 40%. That means that, at worst – I’m counting the ground balls as outs which I shouldn’t but it’s easier to make my point – (with his sky high 2.2/9 k rate), every line drive and fly ball will go for a hr and he will give up 5 runs per game.

    He’s obviously trash. And he’ll regress because. You know, because. We’ve only seen him pitch this well for 5 years.

    • Avatar Dan McNamara says:

      Thank you for the kind words! Nice to know I have a fan out there :) I’ll try to address your questions and points in order:

      1. No, it’s not a joke. Sorry if I confused you!

      2. As for your theory about batted balls, you’re assuming that he will continue to only give up 5 hits per game and that none of his groundballs will be hits? You’re right, that certainly does make it easier to make your point lol. Unfortunately, ground balls do turn into hits about a quarter of the time and Bieber’s xBABIP on grounders agrees (.260)… what’s more, his actual BABIP on grounders is only .200, so I’m sorry to say that his 5 hits per game will probably go up, not down. Once more guys are on base as that BABIP rises, those frequent barrels and other hard hits are going to be more harmful and his ERA is probably going to rise.

      3. He’s trash? That’s pretty harsh of you. I disagree strongly. I think he has incredible stuff and a ceiling that is quite high.

      4. You never finished your sentence. “And he’ll regress because”… I’ll finish it for you. He’ll probably regress because he gives up harder contact than 95% of the league and because of all pitchers who threw 1500 pitches in 2018, only 1 pitcher finished the season with an xBABIP – BABIP greater than the one that he is currently toting. He’ll probably regress because when his BABIP does rise, which we’ve established is likely, the fact that he gives up barrels more often than 96% of the league will become a much bigger issue. He’ll probably regress because the probabilities calculated based on the hundreds of thousands of batted ball events that statcast has captured in the last 5 seasons suggest that he will not only regress, but regress in a MASSIVE way. It’s one thing to have a slight deviation in Expected vs Actual statistics and expect a somewhat similar performance moving forward, but when your Expected is 25-50% worse across the board, there’s no reason to believe strongly that future performance will be as good as current performance unless other variables change dramatically.

      5. I mean… we haven’t seen him pitch this well for 5 years, because he hasn’t pitched this well ever. He’s never had a full season across the majors or minors with a K% >25% and now he’s up at 30+%. He’s gone from 2-3% BB to 6% BB and he’s gone from being a fastball-heavy zone hound to being a borderline junk baller throwing 55% breakers and offspeed pitches and living in the zone 15% less often than he did in 2018. He’s not even remotely the same pitcher that he’s been for the last four years and we learned that his approach throughout the minor leagues was not going to translate to being an ace last season.

      Hope that clears a few things up! Thanks for reading :)

      • Avatar Sam says:

        You said “the outlook is not that great” to sum it up and while you did say he has a high ceiling, it’s hidden somewhere between “things are about to get ugly” and that he has a “low floor” if he doesn’t adjust. We have seen him pitch for 5 seasons. The International League, like the PCL, is famous for being one hr after another. A guy can hit 30 bombs in the IL and you say “he might have some power potential.” And although Bieber only pitched about 50 innings there, his WHIP was .74 with an 8.7 k/9 and 1.1 bb/9. More importantly, his FIP and xFIP are almost identical to Clevinger in 2017.

        The Biebs is getting hit hard when he gets hit. His HR/FB% is 20. That’s spectacularly high. I appreciate the amount of time you spent on this article, but I look at it much like I looked at the fangraphs preseason scouting report that said he should walk more guys. If nobody is on base and you can strike out 15 batters per game (not every game, but you have the ability to do it as we’ve seen) then he can give up those bombs and still post quality starts more often than not.

        You’ve given no explanation for how Bieber has successfully pitched this way at every single level of baseball from three years of D-1 up until now. He’s just a rare breed who gives up hard contact in exchange for not giving free passes or trying to get guys to chase.

        You’re like the guys who’d say “Joey Votto’s BABIP is .350, regression is coming.” And then he put up that same BABIP for a decade. One or two stats are meaningless in a vacuum.

        • Avatar Dan McNamara says:

          I’m not actually like those guys though. This isn’t a major knock on them, bc they didn’t always have access to the data that we do now, but they were always of the assumption that high or low BABIPs would regress back toward LEAGUE averages, not individual averages or expected averages given the current season’s skillset. Votto’s BABIP-xBABIP in the statcast era is -0.003 lol, so no one who takes the time to look at that would ever suggest regression for him.

          I’m looking at Bieber as an individual and then making further adjustments based on population tendencies. It’s a calculated prediction. I can appreciate your trust in his ability to prevent HRs in the past, but that was also the minors. This is the show. The numbers don’t lie: he’s struggling at this level in terms of his contact against. Last year it wasn’t horrible, but it being “worse” than it’s ever been caused him to make a DRASTIC change in his approach that has made his contact way worse over a pretty stable sample this season.

          I also don’t think it’s wrong to say that guys with high upside can also have low floors. Just look at the Carrasco’s, Bundy’s, Pivetta’s, Syndergaard’s, etc of the world. He’s not exactly like them, but I believe Bieber will face a similar roller coaster as hitters 1. Adjust to his zonal tendencies to take more walks or get ahead, and 2. Start seeing their hard contact drop in for hits more often (as the numbers suggest will happen).

          • Avatar Sam says:

            He actually is adjusting his zonal tendencies as I just took the time to read and if he is capable of reading a heat chart he has the pinpoint accuracy – an unbelievable and virtually unparalleled asset – to adjust to the MASSIVE REGRESSION you’re writing about. Maybe you don’t title the tweets, but this article is just below the big shocker… “Bad times are on the horizon.”

            His xFIP is 3.42. That’s lower than Verlander. You’re warning us that teams are going to hit him hard. I already pointed out that he has a 20% HR/FB rate. What you’ve written about could be considered an interesting perspective on why that number is twice what it was last year and the highest I’ve seen for any player whose advanced stats I’ve ever looked at.

            I don’t think I would have even commented without the doom and gloom tone and sensationalist/click bait styled headline and graphic. His xFIP is lower than Verlander’s. Boom. Done. I’m a Twins fan, too. So I’m going to be rooting for a very different rookie (I think he qualifies as a rookie) pitcher this year to lead his team to the AL Central pennant.

            • Avatar Dan McNamara says:

              You again aren’t grasping the message here. The message is not that “teams are going to hit him hard”. The message is that teams are ALREADY hitting him harder than almost any pitcher in baseball and that his actual results are far from what a stable sample tells us they should be. So as the skillset is maintained, the results will eventually start moving toward the expectation. Unless he makes a distinct change in his approach midseason, which I highly doubt he will since his current approach has netted him his current results, he’s likely to have a worse rest of season than he’s had thus far.

              Also, xFIP says nothing about the quality of contact that is being made. It takes into account your FBs (regardless of EV or LA), HBP, BBs, K’s, and runs them alongside the LgAvg HR/FB%. That’s not a sound indicator of sustainability. It’s simply one indicator as to how you’ve pitched to this point with fielding and other balls in play (of which there are a lot) removed from the equation. Be careful using something like that as a true gauge of success. Wheeler, Gibson, Fried, and Mahle also have better xFIPs than Verlander…

          • Avatar Sam says:

            I completely understand that he is already getting hit extremely hard. That’s why I said his HR/FB% was astronomically high. I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt that your analysis supports this as trend rather than an anomaly. That said, you’re using stats that are cool but don’t even have one model. If you want to talk barrels, exit velocity, etc. his numbers look very similar to Madison Bumgarner this year.

            I own Strasburg and Ray (and Sale) in my 12 team league where I accidentally picked Bieber because I lost connectivity. I think I was trying to take Grandal in a two catcher league. Watching Bieber and looking at his stats, he seems to be an interesting combination of Strasburg and Robbie Ray. Today Bieber melted down, flat out. Statistics don’t explain his outing. Unless xChoke is a stat. He’s a young pitcher with great stuff who is figuring it out. Kudos to Cleveland for pulling him and hopefully your article and his blow up will encourage smart buyers to get him on the cheap.

            • Avatar Nick Gerli says:

              When you’re giving up literally the hardest contact of any pitcher in baseball, as measured by xStats, eventually you’re going to get burned. There’s likely more of these to come.

            • Avatar Done says:

              He’s not giving up the hardest contact of any pitcher in baseball, he’s #23 on that particular list. A few ticks below him is Patrick Corbin, who has given up the same number of 95 mph+ hit balls. And for Bieber, on ground balls he’s #48, better than Daniel Norris and German Marquez.

  • Avatar McNamara got deep says:

    So in a dynasty you recommend a sell high? Or should we keep since he’s very young but still very good?

    • Avatar Dan McNamara says:

      I think selling-high is ALWAYS a good idea regardless of the player and regardless of the format :)

      I don’t think you need to be afraid of him, but rather aware of the fact that his future performance (at least in the short-term) is looking like it ‘s going to be notably worse than what it’s been over his first 12 appearances this season. If you can find a buyer who considers him a true top 15 arm and is willing to pay that price, I would take that deal. And in redrafts, I would definitely look to off-load him and let the buyer take on the regression while you add 1 or mulitple players who can continue to help you in a big way sustainably down the stretch. Again, don’t sell him like he’s on clearance haha, as that’s not my point with this article, but if you can get a low-3’s ERA, low-1’s WHIP, and 24% K-BB return (which are elite ace numbers), take that deal, as I expect the ERA and WHIP to both get worse over the course of 2019.

  • Avatar Dirk McGirt, Old Dirky B*stard says:

    Sound the alarm!!!! Cmon …
    Impressive analysis, interesting – but ultimately aren’t we almost splitting hairs here? The narrative of the analysis is a bit dramatic, and leads the confidence-lacking stat sheep, who don’t watch much baseball, to thinking there’s some impending doom / regression coming. How about the eye test? “Not Justin” is nasty. Filthy NASTY. He’s a 23, 200ip/yr work horse on a winning team, now making adjustments mid-AB and attacking hitters very differently third lap through the lineup: e.g., shaking off pitches from his catcher/dugout that he doesn’t like – for the 1st time I’ve seen in his young career (something you can’t see in pitch data). Might it be possible that his 2019 approach is more intelligent than “whiff chasing”, deployed to take advantage of these hyper-aggro, lift-happy mediocre hitters selling out for HRs, knowing that if they can still miss-hit Right-Said-Manfredd’s juiced ball but by getting it in the air that it might be carry the wall, ultimately making them rich, thinking “I’m too sexy for my contract.”

    Name 20 SPs you would rather have in a dynasty … I can’t name 15. The ones that are close have more risk. For me, he’s hard BUY this year – especially in dynasty, especially if you’re in a position to roll him out as your SP3-4. Next time he gets hit hard I’m trying to buy everywhere. Granted, your expert analysis indicates he is very likely be overvalued and drafted too early in 2020 redrafts. Thank you for your thought provoking data-driven insights.

    • Avatar Dan McNamara says:

      I don’t think it’s splitting hairs to acknowledge that an extraordinarily large dataset is suggesting he’s not just due for some regression but MASSIVE negative regression with his batted balls. Take last night for instance… Bieber gave up 5 hits; 2 were bombs, 2 were doubles, and both bombs were barrels, not flyballs down the line that snuck out. With a nearly 70 point difference in BABIP vs xBABIP, I think it’s safe to say that he’s going to have more games where some groundballs start finding holes and liners start dropping. When that occurs, these barrels and hard hits are going to be more valuable and a 7inn 2ER outing can quickly become a 6inn 4ER outing or worse. Throw in his zonal tendencies that leave him vulnerable to a more patient approach from hitters and we might even see more walks or continued hard contact in early 2-ball or 3 ball counts.

      There’s a lot that is very fragile about Bieber’s approach right now, and I’m fairly confident that his output is pretty unsustainable given the situations he’s vulnerable to and the contact he allows. Opinions differ across the board and I’m always happy to have discussions, so thanks for the comment! Not all of my pieces are “defcon”, so I’m sure you’ll enjoy a positive piece I write about one of your guys in the future ;)

  • Avatar Jack says:

    Would you trade him for Trevor Story in a Dynasty league?

  • Avatar MB says:

    Dan – One of the most convincing articles I have read. Upon initially reading this I traded him for Nelson Cruz (the day before Beebs got drilled by the Yankees) and was feeling great. I still feel fine, Cruz has been a solid source of power / rbi in my 6×6 12 team roto.

    My question is are you still taking the position that it is a “when” and not “if” situation in which the regression is coming, or has be made an adjustment?

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