At this point, I feel like it’s well known how much of a believer I am in Shane Bieber. He may very well be my favorite pitcher. After all, he’s one of the three pitchers that I presented about in my PitchCon presentation which was aptly named The Three Pitchers I Love The Most. For me, there’s not much that I don’t like about Bieber. Most of his detractors point to his fastball, to which I counter that we may have overcompensated and it may be a little underrated at this point. All of his other skills are great too, so it seems like we’re really picking nits.
I made an appearance on Baseball Prospectus’ Flags Fly Forever podcast, and I made this note:
a little tidbit from the @FlagsFlyBP pod that's set to go live tomorrow…here’s a list of pitchers with two pitches >23 SwStr%:
it's just shane bieber
— Michael Ajeto 🇵🇭 (@dysthymikey) July 17, 2020
You read that correctly. Bieber is the lone pitcher in baseball with two pitches that meet or exceed a 23% swinging-strike percentage. There aren’t that many that are even close. Blake Snell just misses the cut. Kyle Gibson is close. Max Scherzer is close. If you look at Statcast’s data, then Snell and Bieber make up the only pitchers with two pitches that exceed a 22% swinging-strike percentage. Of course, these numbers differ between websites and tracking systems, but nevertheless, this is a testament to Bieber’s skills. You get the point. Bieber’s been special.
Paired with his command, that’s what the fanfare has been all about: his secondaries. I wrote about how his pitches changed over the course of last year — especially his curveball — but I mostly focused on his fastball and breaking pitches and how they interacted. It was already a beast of an article, and so I left the changeup out, because it isn’t good. In the past two years, he’s thrown 306 changeups, and it’s returned a 28.0% chase percentage, 40.5% zone percentage, and 8.8% swinging-strike percentage. That’s pretty poor, and so he hasn’t thrown it. More recently, though, it’s become relevant again.
But first, here’s a tweet from the 2019 preseason:
Shane Bieber is among the more popular breakout candidates in '19. His work on his changeup remains one of the keys to unlocking the next level, something that would only bolster an already elite rotation.
And so far, his spring has been nearly flawless.https://t.co/gsDFsagJAk
— Ryan Lewis (@ByRyanLewis) March 21, 2019
A pretty classic “best shape of his life” anecdote, and obviously, it returned mixed results. On one hand, he bumped his changeup from 3.8% to 7.3%, and that probably was a small part of the reason that he was able to improve against left-handed hitters. On the other hand, his changeup still wasn’t any better than a show-me pitch.
Here’s a tweet from the other day:
Indians pitching coach Carl Willis was pleased with Shane Bieber's changeup tonight. It's a pitch Bieber spent the winter trying to improve.
Wrote a bit about it during spring training 1.0 —https://t.co/WubYMvMn1v
— Ryan Lewis (@ByRyanLewis) July 15, 2020
Now, this may make you roll your eyes. This is the third straight offseason that Bieber has been working on his changeup, and he hasn’t exactly profited hugely from his previous efforts. I’ll admit that I’m a sucker for these stories, so I fall susceptible to them more than I should, but it feels different this time around.
Bieber talks about trying to find consistency, because he struggles with his feel for it at times in 2019. For that reason, he hasn’t been able to use it as he pleases. Here’s a quote that stuck out to me:
“I have a little bit different thought while I’m throwing it now, just trying to pronate it a little more and trust the action out of the hand,” Bieber said via a Zoom call. “That helps me finish the pitch. Over the last week, that’s the adjustment I’ve made and I’ve seen some improvements.”
I’m forced to speculate here, because we can’t know exactly what is going to happen with his changeup. But before we start speculating, there’s one more quote that’s important. This time, from pitching coach Carl Willis:
“You know what, I think tonight his change-up was really, really effective,” pitching coach Carl Willis said via a Zoom call. “He’s been playing around with a little bit of a different grip, and all of a sudden, he’s starting to create a little more depth to that pitch.”
The takeaway from these two quotes is Bieber is (a) tweaking his grip, (b) trying to pronate more, and (c) getting more depth. We’re reading in between the lines a little bit, but to me, this speaks to Bieber transitioning to a completely different type of changeup. There are different ways to go about throwing a slow ball, but generally speaking, changeups are not good in a vacuum; it’s how they interact with their fastballs, because changeups are essentially just slower fastballs. Some pitchers go with a fastball-changeup tandem with a wide velocity gap, and others try to get a lot of horizontal or vertical separation. The key, though, is separation. As is, Bieber throws his changeup firmer than average, with more arm-side movement than is typical and less drop. Clearly, that’s something he’s going to want and change. With that in mind, let’s further our speculation. Let’s talk about what his changeup is going to look like.
In looking at fastball comps, Luke Weaver and Chase Anderson show up as a pitcher whose fastball is similar in composition to Bieber’s. Chris Paddack‘s doesn’t fall far behind either. For all three of them, their best pitch is their changeup, so it’s fair to think that if Bieber’s changeup looks more like his that it should improve significantly.
A table, comparing their changeups in 2019:
|Velocity||Spin rate||H-Mov||V-Mov||V-Mov (gravity)|
Changeups are often very unique pitches; perhaps more than any other pitch. And here, you can see that rings true. While all four have vaguely similar fastballs, the latter three have good changeups while Bieber does not. It seems obvious that Bieber would benefit from more drop on his slow ball, which should come with lessened velocity too. My suspicion is that will happen, especially because Willis mentioned he’s added some depth to it. In pronating more, Bieber will decrease the spin rate of his changeup and give it more drop. His changeup velocity should then resemble something more closely to Weaver and Paddack’s, but the drop he gets will likely be more akin to Weaver’s changeup.
Even without a good changeup, Bieber is one of the best starting pitchers in baseball. And yet, if my speculation becomes reality, Bieber will have another weapon to help his fastball play up. It’s almost not fair. Bieber already had three pitches that he can throw for strikes at an elite clip, and now if his changeup becomes as good as I think it can, he not only adds a fourth worthwhile offering, but it could be the thing that — aside from elevating it — will improve and protect his fastball. It doesn’t even need to be good, just more usable.
I should mention that this could be all be for naught. This could simply be coach- and player-speak and Bieber could be throwing a similar changeup than in 2019. The possibility also exists that he doesn’t gain the feel for this changeup either. The difference is that this appears to be the sole focus on Bieber’s offseason. Before, he was simply trying to capture his feel for it and be able to show hitters a fourth offering, whereas now he’s trying to perfect and optimize it.
Until he gives me a reason to feel otherwise, I will defend Shane Bieber to the grave. Perhaps it’s a character deficiency on my end (and at this point, people are starting to make me feel like it is) but his tools are undeniable at this point. Bieber already took a leap forward in 2019 — and he benefited from some good batted ball fortune — but detractors cited that this couldn’t persist with his fastball. I still don’t think that’s true, but I do think it’s true that he’s about to take another step forward. That’s not for certain, but one thing is for sure. I’m going to die on this hill.