The Yankees made the postseason for the fourth consecutive season, and as their reward, they get the prohibitive favorite for the American League Cy Young Award, Shane Bieber. The 25-year-old righty logged 77.1 innings in 2020, pitching to an eye-popping 1.63 ERA (2.07 FIP). He’s a strikeout machine who carved up the Central divisions all summer.
His resume speaks for itself, but in order to get to know Bieber a little better, it makes sense to dig in deep on Cleveland’s Game One starter.
Bieber’s History Against the Yankees
Since breaking into the big leagues in 2018, Bieber has faced the Yankees twice. Interestingly enough, the Yankees did solid work against him on both occasions. On July 13, 2018, he allowed three runs on five hits across seven innings—a game the Yankees lost when Domingo Germán imploded over four innings. Then, on June 9 of last season, he gave up five runs in 1.2 innings of work, transforming his outing into an impromptu bullpen game.
Here’s the breakdown for the Yankees who have seen Bieber:
Yankees Against Shane Bieber
Now, pitcher-batter splits are almost useless. The sample sizes are too small to draw any meaningful conclusions. So, then, why did I spend over 100 words on it? To illustrate that it is, in fact, possible to hit Bieber. The mood around this place is that the Yankees are going to concede tomorrow’s game, that they have no chance to hit Bieber.
Some of them have before. It’s not impossible. Bieber won’t make things easy for the Yanks, but hey, they shouldn’t just tip their cap to him before they walk up to the plate. At the very least, they know they’ve had some success before, and they can use that to settle their nerves.
Feeling better after reading that the Yankees have hit Bieber before? Good! Now time to throw some cold water at you. The Shane Bieber of 2020 is not the Shane Bieber of 2018-2019. Bieber basically has a lock on the American League Cy Young Award, and he can thank his strikeout stuff for that. He leads all qualified starting pitchers in strikeouts on a rate basis (14.20 K/9) and on a counting basis (122).
Bieber has a five-pitch arsenal that he deploys to great effect. No, he doesn’t throw particularly hard, as his fourseam-fastball averages 94.1 mph, but the right-hander uses a multitude of offspeed pitches to retire batters. His breaking stuff, namely a curveball and a slider, are upper-echelon out pitches.
“I really enjoy that pitch right now,” Bieber said of his curveball to Joe Noga in August. “It’s kind of my baby.” The hook, which averages 83.6 mph, has a 51.5% whiff rate. His slider, meanwhile, is a littler harder, clocking in at 84.5, and registers a 61.2% whiff rate. Those are nasty pitches,
The 25-year-old also uses the element of surprise to his advantage. He’s fairly unpredictable in his counts, throwing first-pitch fastballs less than half of the time. Consider his pitch usage data from Brooks Baseball:
First-pitch cutters against right-handed hitters! First-pitch changeups to left-handed hitters! Bieber isn’t afraid to throw any pitch in any count. Just know, that if he gets ahead, the curveball looms.
How to Attack Bieber
Believe it or not, Bieber has a slight platoon split, and it actually benefits the Yankees. Bieber is death on any batter, but he’s slightly less so against righties. Guess what? The Yankees have seriously good right-handed batters.
2020 vs. LHB: .153/.218/.198 (.194 wOBA), 57 K, 1 HR, 7.7% walk rate, 41.9% groundball rate
2020 vs. RHB: .181./239/.326 (.247 wOBA), 65 K, 6 HR, 6.5% walk rate, 54.4% groundball rate
DJ LeMahieu, Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, and Luke Voit rank among the best right-handed hitters in the game. Aaron Hicks is a switch hitter with an unimpeachable eye, something that will serve as an advantage against the Yankees. I’ve read some arguments for playing Brett Gardner in left field, but the right-handed Clint Frazier has the platoon advantage. Add in Gleyber Torres and Gio Urshela, and that’s about the best possible to combat Bieber.
When it comes to game-planning their actual at-bats, the Yankees will want to 1) avoid falling behind in the count, 2) take aim at fastballs in the zone, and 3) spit on the breaking pitches. It doesn’t actually make sense to wear out Bieber, drive his pitch count up, then try one’s luck with Cleveland’s bullpen. If he gets ahead, he can go to the filth for strikeouts.
Sitting fastball early makes for the best strategy, but even that isn’t foolproof. As Jake noted in the PSA offices, Bieber threw 495 fastballs outside of two-strike counts. Batters put 63 in play for a .348 wOBA. That isn’t terribly impressive when compared to the .429 wOBA league average in that situation, but that’s what the Yankees will have to try to play for, to make it work.
And while it’s easier said than done, the Yankees have to put a premium on identifying the curveball out of Bieber’s hand—then spitting on it. Bieber likes to bury the pitch out of the zone:
He doesn’t throw it for strikes all that often. See the rotation, then hold up. Swinging over it will only play into his plan of attack.
The Yankees have one of the toughest assignments in baseball ahead of them on Tuesday night. Bieber represents the Cy Young favorite, and he gets to pitch at his home stadium. The Yankees are the Yankees, though, with a lineup that can—and should—hunt fastballs. Because, believe me, they want nothing to do with Bieber’s nasty, breaking pitches.