Shane Bieber made his MLB debut Thursday evening, throwing 5.2 IP, 4 ER, 8 Hits, 2 BBs, 6 Ks against the Minnesota Twins and it’s hard not to get wrapped up in the exctiement. Hype is part of the fun of fantasy baseball and Bieber’s was tantalizing with just 15 walks allowed in all 262.2 IP thrown in the minors. While his role moving forward is in question – the Indians don’t need a fifth starter until June 12th and it could easily be Adam Plutko – we were given a glimpse at a pitcher that will make plenty more starts in the future and I want to talk about it.
And I’m going to upfront about this one. No gimmicks, no teases, no drama for the sake of my own indulgences.
I didn’t like what I saw.
That may be a bit harsh and I’ll show in this article each nook and cranny of Bieber’s debut that hinted at something better, but there will be more about what makes me concerned from a fantasy perspective than excited for the future.
I want to start off with the #1 element of Bieber’s game. The cream of the crop, the facet that makes him a pitcher that would survive in the major leagues: his fastball control.
Now before I continue, I should say that Bieber’s fastball control actually wasn’t that good. A 50.9% zone rate for the game with his heater is fine, while the pitches out of the zone weren’t of the enticing variety ala Dallas Keuchel or Kyle Hendricks.
But we did see a handful of dotted fastballs that could suggest better days:
We can’t be blind to the idea that Bieber was pitching his MLB debut (on his 23rd birthday no less!), a significant moment in his life where maybe, just maybe, his emotions were affecting his performance on the field. That’s actually one of the major takeaways from this game – Bieber wasn’t on point here but it’s well within reason that we’ll see better fastballs moving forward.
Allow me to show you what I mean by his bad fastballs. Here are some outs he generated, well hit on pitches that got plenty of the zone:
And of course the hits he allowed off bad fastballs:
I can understand the argument that Bieber was getting a little gassed in the last one as he had a stressful fifth frame and he was just one pitch away from ending his evening. Still, for a guy that’s touted as a command pitcher, that’s a glaring mistake pitch.
But when the pitch was working, there was a lot of fun to be had. Check out these two strikeouts via front door two-seamers to left-handers that deserve your attention:
Those are beautifully executed pitches and gives me hope that Bieber can settle in for 5+ strikeouts on a given day (he even had another earlier to Eddie Rosario that didn’t get the call). And this kind of execution wasn’t exclusive to two-strike heaters. Take for example this 1-2 combination of his fastball and slider:
It’s a 1-0 fastball that starts off the edge before curling back over the plate for a strike, followed by a slider that starts along the outside corner and ends off the plate. Mitch Garver can’t tell out of Bieber’s hand which direction the ball is going, commits to another heater, and it’s too late to pull back as the ball falls out of the strikezone. That’s gorgeous and if we see plenty of this sequencing and execution, Bieber will have success.
And let’s talk about those secondary pitches some more. With prospect pitchers especially, there’s a larger necessity for a money pitch. A plus offering that pitchers can turn to for a strikeout, a big out, or confidently steal a strike when they need it. Flaherty and Romero have their sliders, Soroka and Kingham their fastballs, but Bieber doesn’t really have that. You could argue it’s his heater, but at the very least it isn’t his breaking stuff nor changeup. Definitely not his changeup, just look at this straight change for a whiff that Eddie Rosario was surprised he missed:
Or this flat pitch that left the yard:
That’s not to say that he didn’t execute his changeup well at all during this start – he had one that was rolled over for an out – but it was much more of a liability than a weapon, which Yan Gomes recognized and elected to hold off calling for it during the outing.
But we’re getting off track. Like his fastball, there were moments were Beiber’s breaking stuff worked, like these two curveballs to Logan Morrison:
Or this slider in the first to fan Miguel Sano:
If this is what we see regularly – fastballs for strikes, breaking balls under the zone for whiffs – I’d be happy. The problem is when he threw the benders and hooks inside the zone.
Does this look like a pitch that deserved a swinging strikeout?
How about this slider slapped to short for a groundout?
Or this curveball that landed middle-middle and resulted in an inning-ending double play?
Again, it was his MLB debut. The numbers suggest that he’s a better pitcher than what we saw in this super small sample size (SSSS) and I can’t judge him too harshly for this outing. Maybe he refines his secondary stuff and fuses it better with his fastball moving forward. Right now, I wanted to be blown away by a pitch in Bieber’s repertoire and it’s just not here.
I don’t think I’m going against the grain when I think Bieber’s long-term outlook is equivalent to a #4/5 fantasy starter. Given the pedigree and moments of excellence in his debut, I can see a pitcher who has a decent floor via a moving fastball that stays in the lower third of the zone, gets ahead often, and can twirl breaking balls under the zone for occasional whiffs. I don’t love his breaking stuff and certainly not his changeup, but there’s enough here to paint the picture of an innings eater-type arm that returns 4-6 strikeouts per game. In the short term, however, his limited ceiling makes him a questionable play for 2018, while it’s hard to rid him of the common “high risk” label assigned to arms getting their footing in the major leagues. If the Indians elected to run him out there every fifth day come the start of July, he still wouldn’t be a must-add in 12-teamers and reserved only for those badly in need among a thin wire.
2019 and beyond could return a much better arm if he fleshes out his slider and curveball, possibly saving one to miss bats and reserving the other for strikes, but at this point, it’s hard to believe in a large impact. Here’s to hoping we see more consistency and polish whenever Bieber steps on the field next.