Listed at 6’ 3” and 200 pounds, Shane Bieber looks the part of a modern power-pitcher (growing a surprisingly thick beard to cover his baby face certainly helps as well), but his skill-set does not match some of the more exciting young starting pitcher fantasy options. His 93.0 mph average fastball velocity isn’t as imposing as Blake Snell’s 95.8. The 2,238-average spin-rate on his slider doesn’t baffle hitters and electrify crowds the way Walker Buehler’s 2,767 can. And while his 9.26 K/9 last season was promising, it’s quite a step behind German Marquez’ 10.56.
So why write about Bieber with all of these fun options to choose from? Well, let’s start with my desire to persuade everyone reading this to invest in him during their drafts. The numbers suggest that Bieber might have run into a little bad luck during his rookie campaign. No one with a minimum of 100 IP had a higher BABIP than Bieber’s .356. That plus a FIP of 3.23 and xFIP of 3.30 suggest that his 4.55 ERA will come down this season.
Bieber’s FIP/xFIP numbers are good in large part because he largely keeps the ball in the yard (1.02 HR/9), but not being in the upper echelon of strikeout pitchers, his SIERA might be a better barometer of what we should expect from him going forward. Because SIERA attempts to explain balls that are put in play, Bieber’s 3.45 SIERA gives even more credence to the idea that the baseball gods didn’t give him quite as fair of a shake in 2018 as we would have hoped.
Bieber’s season wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. We need to acknowledge that batters did square him up a fair amount. His 43.9% hard-hit rate was sixth highest among pitchers with at least 100 IP, just behind the likes of Matt Moore and Bartolo Colon. Piling on, the average exit velocity of balls put in play against him was 89.4 mph. For some context, 89.4 mph was the average exit velocity for balls put in play by Juan Soto and just a tick higher than Alex Bregrman’s 89.3 mph. Guys regularly hitting the ball with the authority of one of my favorite young outfielders is a pretty big red flag. Luckily, I haven’t talked about the biggest reason I have faith in Bieber – command.
From my perspective, the philosophy of developing pitchers today has swung overwhelmingly to the side of stuff first, command/control second. How many times have we been excited about a fantasy prospect and said, “when he can just harness all that velocity and movement…”? Bieber is someone who has had unbelievable command going back to his college days. During his time at UCSB he walked a grand total of 38 batters in 300 innings over 3 seasons, resulting in a cumulative 6.24 K/B ratio. So, when we saw him post a 5.13 K/BB last season, the same number as Patrick Corbin and just behind Clayton Kershaw’s 5.34, we know that it’s not a fluke. Neither is his 4.7% walk-rate or 1.81 BB/9.
Bieber does not have the margin for error that someone hitting triple-digits on the radar gun has. He doesn’t have the proverbial silver-bullet that he can go to whenever he needs a swing and miss. If he doesn’t hit his spots he can get hit hard. But who says that he won’t hit his spots?
With the level of command that Bieber has shown I am confident that he will be able to attack hitters in such a way that he will put up numbers that surpass what we might expect with his pitch arsenal. When you start thinking about rounding out your staff in the mid-late rounds, instead of taking a flier on a power-arm that might learn how to pitch, how about just taking a guy who we already know can?