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Reality Check: Shane Bieber Might Impress Us

Shane Bieber first began turning heads in the minor leagues not because of what he did, but rather what he didn’t do; walk batters. Bieber walked just 10 batters over 173.1 innings across three levels of the minors in 2017. That’s a 0.50 BB/9. Let that sink in. He still wasn’t considered an elite prospect since he wasn’t striking out over a batter per inning, but he was firmly on the 2018 redraft radar due to his overall success.

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Shane Bieber in 2018

What We Saw In His Debut

Shane Bieber did get to make his debut in 2018 and wound up starting 19 games for the Indians. The surface results were a mixed bag. His ERA and WHIP were underwhelming at 4.55/1.33, but his strikeout rate shot up to 9.26 K/9 and he continued to limit the walks with a 1.81 BB/9. The results point to a back-end starting pitcher, but the strikeout and walk rates paint a pretty picture of upside. Which are we to believe?

A great place to start when determining the base skill set of a starter is to look at his K-BB%. With a 24.3% K% and 4.7% BB%, simple math (if that’s your thing) gives us a 19.6% K-BB%. That was the 23rd best mark in baseball (min. 110 IP). Not too shabby. So what was behind the elevated ERA and WHIP?

The .356 BABIP Bieber posted raises an eyebrow. I can already hear the chants of “regression”, but let’s not get hasty here. The BABIP was driven by a highly elevated 43.9% hard contact rate. That was the fifth highest mark in baseball (again, min. 110 IP) behind only Dan Straily, Jason Hammel, Robbie Ray, and Bartolo Colon. It’s not a shock that every one of those pitchers struggled at times in 2018. Then again, there are success stories further down that list in guys like Patrick Corbin and Zack Greinke. You can still find success if you make up for the hard contact with a lot of strikeouts, or plus command – both of which Bieber possesses. However, the elevated BABIP was deserved. While there should be some regression, it could still sit around .320-.330 since Bieber neither induces a ton of ground balls nor pop-ups.

Bieber also suffered a below-average strand rate. This, unlike the BABIP, strikes me as pretty unfortunate given his high strikeout rate. Bieber’s FIP takes both strand rate and BABIP regression into account and puts him at a 3.23 FIP for his efforts in 2018. I’m not ready to go there – again, considering his hard contact rate – but if he continues to strike out more than a batter per inning, he’ll get better results.

The plate discipline stats for Bieber indicate those K’s should stick around. His 11.4% swinging strike rate was 39th in MLB, which isn’t earth-shattering by any means, but solid. His O-Swing% is more of a wet blanket though. At 30.9%, he didn’t get batters to expand the zone as much as you’d like. However, high strikeout starters like German Marquez and Jack Flaherty were able to find success with sub-31% O-Swing rates, so it’s not a must.

It also makes sense for Shane Bieber, because he is in the zone a lot. In fact, his 48% zone rate was ninth highest among starters. That in itself is very encouraging. He trusts his stuff and has the command to paint the corners. Still, it might suit him to pitch in the zone a little less to incur fewer hard-hit balls.

Bieber’s slider is his main strikeout pitch, a sexy breaker that he used 23 percent of the time. It got 26.41% whiffs per swing, along with a .248 batting average against. Perhaps he could stand to throw it even more in 2019. His curve is a solid third offering, though far less spectacular than the slide piece. The fastball isn’t great but plays up because of his command, but that changeup is a distant fourth offering. He only used it against left-handers, and just seven percent of the time at that. Does it work? No. No, it does not. It yielded a .357 BAA. It’s a straight change that is an absolute change-of-pace pitch.

The lack of success against lefties was Bieber’s largest issue. He allowed a .383 wOBA to lefties (.282 vs RHH) with a staggering 48% hard contact allowed. He was 60% fastballs against lefties, but his curve allowed just a .250 BAA and 17% whiff rate. If he gets a bit more curve-happy against lefties in 2019 (or his changeup takes a step forward) he should find more success. Can we count on that happening? Absolutely not. But, BUT, at least there is a reason for optimism.

What To Expect from Shane Bieber in 2019

Steamer only has Bieber projected for 23 starts. I’d expect him to maintain a rotation spot all season unless he either performs very poorly or the Indians surprise us and add another pitcher instead of trading one away like they’ve been rumored to. Give me the over on Steamer’s 130 IP. He’s projected for a 3.85 ERA, which is probably about right to me. Even if he continues to get hit harder than you’d like because he lives in the zone too much, he gets to beat up on terrible Tigers, Royals, and White Sox lineups within the division.

175 innings of a 3.85 ERA with a strikeout per inning is a mighty fine pitcher these days. He’s SP50 right now according to our ADP, but he offers just as much as a lot of the starters going before him. I’ll pass on the likes of Kyle Freeland, Rick Porcello, and Jose Quintana to name a few if it means getting Shane Bieber a round or two later. As long as his ADP doesn’t climb much higher, there’s some very nice upside built into that pick.

Nathan Dokken is a member of the FSWA and has been featured on numerous radio shows, podcasts, and magazines. He is the host of the Nasty Cast and Fantrax Dynasty Baseball podcasts, and his written work can be found at Razzball and Fantrax HQ. He is on Twitter @NathanDokken. If you enjoyed this article please check out his full archive.

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