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Year-in-Review: Shane Bieber

2020 AL Cy Young winner Shane Bieber was just simply remarkable in every definition of the word this past season. He led the majors in a number of statistics such as ERA (1.63) and strikeouts (122) and tied for the major league lead in wins (8) and quality starts (10).

The deeper you look into his numbers, the more impressive and valid his 2020 performance looks. In this recap, we’re going to look at some of the underlying metrics that helped lift Bieber to greater degrees of stardom this past season.

We’re also going to look ahead to next season and project where he should be taken in 2021 redraft leagues.

Be sure to check all of our preseason fantasy baseball rankings for Roto, Points, H2H, dynasty, best ball, prospects and more:

 

The New Extremely Unlikely Strikeout King

Bieber’s ascent to strikeout dominance in the majors has been quite staggering. When Bieber first received his call-up to the big leagues in 2018, he profiled as a fantastic control pitcher who excelled at limiting base runners. His strikeout abilities were – if anything – a concern. He yielded just 19 walks over 49 minor league starts from 2016 to 2018. However, over that same stretch, he averaged just 8.45 K/9.

Bieber’s unlikely and meteoric rise to strikeout dominance began in 2019. As a rookie in 2018, he averaged 9.3 K/9. A solid rate, but certainly nothing spectacular. Then, in 2019, he made tremendous strides as a strikeout pitcher, upping his K/9 to 10.9. He averaged a whiff rate of over 43% on both of his secondary pitches, his curveball (48.7%) and slider (43.5%).

In 2020, he made an even more astounding leap, leading the league with a K/9 of 14.2 and a K% of 41.1%.

His 122 strikeouts also led the league by a substantial margin.

The strikeout gains were a major component that led to his ascent last year, but truly, it was the ensemble alongside the strikeouts that helped bolster Bieber into elite territory.

 

Limiting Base Runners

What makes Bieber’s strikeout emergence even more remarkable is that it hasn’t come alongside any sacrifices in his control pitching. Many pitchers who see a massive uptick in strikeouts would similarly see a massive uptick in walks, given the fact that high strikeout totals require pitching out of the zone to force batters to chase.

Bieber’s walks did increase a bit this past year, but certainly not to an alarming degree. He saw his BB/9 rise from 1.7 in 2019 – which led the American League - to 2.4 in 2020.

He ranked amongst the league leaders in walk percentage in 2019.

However, he was barely inside the top 25 in the stat in 2020.

Essentially, the massive strides he made in strikeouts overrode the minor losses he sacrificed in walks. The majority of statistics that quantify base runners indicate that Bieber was better in limiting base runners in 2020 than he was in 2019.

In 2019, batters hit .230 against him. In 2020, his batting average-against was just .167 and his xBA was equally strong at .187. He also improved his WHIP from 1.05 in 2019 to 0.87 in 2020.

 

Pitch Variety

In 2020, Bieber mixed up his pitches to a far greater degree than he had done in previous years. In 2019, he threw his four-seamer 45.7% of the time. He only threw the pitch 37.4% in 2020. He also increased his average velocity on the pitch from 93.1 miles per hour in 2019 to 94.1 in 2020.

Bieber introduced a cutter for the first time in 2020 and threw it 16.2% of the time. The new pitch gave him three secondary pitch options that he could mix in with his four-seamer. Alongside his cutter, he featured an electric slider that generated a 61.2% whiff rate as well as a curveball that averaged 53.6 inches of vertical drop, over six inches more than league average.

In addition to the four pitches previously mentioned, Bieber also mixed in his changeup 8.5% of the time and saw it improve significantly from 2019. He generated a whiff rate of 53.7% from the pitch in 2020 compared with just 21.9% in 2019.

 

Hard Contact Concerns?

If there’s one area in an otherwise glowing portfolio that sticks out as a potential concern, it’s Bieber’s hard-hit rate and the surprising lack of power output it led to.

In 2019, Bieber had the highest hard-hit rate of all qualified pitchers.

As a result, he was tagged for 31 home runs, which was tied for the seventh-most in the league.

In 2020, he again ranked near the top of the league in hard-hit rate but allowed just seven home runs over the year.

His home run rate in 2020 was just 2.4%, a decent decline from his 2019 home run rate of 3.6%.  If he had yielded home runs 3.6% of the time in 2020, like he did in 2019, then several of his pristine statistics – namely ERA – would have suffered. The league-wide drop in home runs per game from 1.39 in 2019 to 2020 was a likely contributor here. Run-scoring was down across the league and the shortened season prevented things from normalizing more.

Tack on a few home runs to Bieber’s 2020 totals and he’s still the no doubt A.L. Cy Young winner and a fantasy stud. However, with those additional home runs, the gap between him and others in the top pitching tier would seem a bit less drastic.

 

2021 Outlook

Bieber figures to have another elite, Cy Young-caliber season ahead in 2021. He should absolutely be one of the first pitchers taken in all redraft leagues. Jacob deGrom and Gerrit Cole really only seem like the only other realistic options as the first pitcher off the board at this point.

To me, Bieber warrants priority over both. He has far less wear and tear on him than either deGrom and Cole, who have both thrown over 1,100 major league innings while Bieber has logged just 406.1. deGrom is 32 years old and Cole is 30 while Bieber turns 26 in April.

How high you draft Bieber depends on your playing preferences and league settings. There’s so much depth at hitting these days and such little supply of top-end pitching that there’s certainly an argument that Bieber deserves consideration as the first overall pick, especially in leagues where elite pitching is valued higher than elite hitting – which is becoming more and more frequent these days.

If you’re confident in your pitching strategy after round one, or if you’re just deadest on only taking hitters at the top of drafts, then ranking Bieber fourth overall behind Ronald Acuna, Mike Trout and Mookie Betts makes sense.

For those who draft Bieber, look for him to once again deliver elite numbers in strikeouts, wins, ERA and WHIP as he seeks out his second-straight A.L. Cy Young award.



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