Note: Stats in this article do not include Bieber’s start yesterday, 6/1.
Shane Bieber made a compelling case for AL MVP in the 2020 shortened season. Not many pitchers get to say that. He was also the first pitcher to complete the Triple Crown since 2006. Even fewer pitchers get to say that. He perhaps should have won it — and I made that argument here — but he lost it to José Abreu. Before he lost the AL MVP to Abreu, though, he lost to the Yankees. And he hasn’t been quite the same since.
In Bieber’s postseason loss, the Yankees executed their game plan and spat on Bieber’s pitches out of the zone. That’s much easier said than done. Getting chases and misses was his forte in 2020: Bieber posted a chase percentage of 34.6% during the regular season. Against the Yankees? His chase percentage was just 25.0%, the second-lowest for him all season. This forced Bieber to throw in the zone more — his zone percentage was the second-highest of the season — and the Yankees took advantage by touching him up for a career-high seven earned runs over 4.2 innings. This was obviously a departure from the rest of Bieber’s 2020.
Perhaps with this game at the forefront of his mind, Bieber set out this offseason to make his slider better mirror his curveball more, which meant that he added gyro spin (i.e., spinning like a bullet) and a few ticks of velocity to it. That made his cutter redundant.
To visualize this, here’s a chart plotting Bieber’s 2020 and 2021 spin direction and spin efficiency, courtesy of Max Bay:
I know that these charts probably aren’t all that easy to read. Put simply, the closer to the center, the more gyro spin of the respective pitch. That means that the pitch spins like a bullet or football. The outermost ring means that the given pitch has perfect backspin or topspin. His curveball has lost transverse spin (and thus lost some movement), and the same goes for his cutter, but most notably, Bieber has revamped his slider. By adding even more gyro spin, he’s changed it from a pitch with spin more akin to his curveball to a pitch more like his cutter. This made his cutter redundant.
Another way to visualize this is by movement. Here, we have Bieber’s 2020 and 2021 charted by horizontal and vertical movement:
The colors of the pitches change, so that’s annoying. But pay attention to the proximity between Bieber’s pitches. In 2020, Bieber had great separation between all of his pitches. His fastball separated from his changeup, and for the most part, his cutter. His slider split the difference in movement between his cutter and curveball. In 2021, you can see why his cutter has become redundant. There’s hardly any space between where his cutter ends and where his slider begins. Paired with stronger command of his slider, this is why he’s dropped its usage from 16.2% to 2.8%.
That’s one problem. Before, you had a pretty typical fastball look. After that, though, the cutter comes in a little slower, with some cut. The slider comes in softer yet, with some drop. The curveball comes in softer than that, with a little sweep. That’s four distinct velocity bands, with very strong spin mirroring. He’s moved more towards three velocity bands, and he’s lost a pitch in his cutter that he could throw in the zone with frequency.
Of course, his fastball velocity is an issue. He’s dropped from 94.1 mph in 2020 to 93.0 in 2021. That’s a problem — his fastball’s CSW has dropped about four percent, and the barrels are up — but it’s not the problem. I also think Bieber could be locating his secondaries better. Consider his cutter, slider, and curveball locations between 2020 and 2021:
In general, it’s pretty clear that the vertical range of Bieber’s secondaries has widened, and there’s been a shift arm-side in location. Not only is he not locating his secondaries optimally, but it sure seems like he doesn’t have any feel for them at all. He’s gone from a plus-plus command pitcher to an average one — his Command+ is just 103 on the year.
Perhaps it’s an arm slot thing. His arm slot has dropped down nearly an inch and a half, which certainly isn’t the most drastic change, but it’s enough to drop him from the 26th to 16th percentile of starting pitchers’ vertical release points in 2020 and 2021. That isn’t to say that his release point hasn’t been repeatable — Jeff Nicholas ran some numbers for me and found his sd(Rel Pt) to be 0.069 and 0.065 in 2020 and 2021 respectively — but maybe this release point, in particular, hasn’t been suitable for him.
Whatever the reason may be for his struggles commanding his secondaries, Bieber needs to get back to what he was doing last year. That means spiking his curveball in the dirt and throwing his slider below the zone. Few starting pitchers have thrown their slider as low in the zone as Bieber in 2020, and his vertical curveball location is only rivaled by 2020 Blake Snell and 2021 Tyler Glasnow.
Here’s how his offerings have changed since last year:
A goal of his may have been to throw in the zone more to avoid games like his playoff loss against the Yankees, but Shane Bieber is best when he’s getting hitters to chase. He still ranks about as favorably as ever. He’s just not throwing the ball outside of the zone nearly as much. It’s unclear what the root of the issue actually is, but the actual problems themselves are clear. He’s not throwing as hard, he’s not commanding as well, and he needs to bury his curveball and slider more. After nearly two season’s worth of data, it’s clear that Bieber maximizes his strike-throwing and barrel suppression skill set when he’s throwing out of the zone more.
(Photos by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire | Design by Michael Packard (@designsbypack on Twitter @ IG)