The height of the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on society came in 2020, and while it drastically changed the most meaningful parts of life, simple distractions like baseball were affected as well. When MLB returned in July, it did so without fans, making ballparks around the country quite eerie. In October especially, it was disheartening not to hear the crowd roar. That was the atmosphere for the start of the temporarily expanded 2020 postseason, when the New York Yankees traveled to face the now-Cleveland Guardians at Progressive Field in one of eight Wild Card Series.
Newcomer Gerrit Cole took to the bump against Shane Bieber, and the Yankees came out firing on all cylinders off the eventual Cy Young Award winner. With DJ LeMahieu hitting a leadoff single and Aaron Judge doing what he usually does and mashing a home run to right center field, the Yankees took a 2-0 lead early. That set the tone and New York plated five more runs in a variety of ways against Bieber, who exited with 105 pitches and 4.2 innings pitched. It’s a start that will surely be discussed at some point on any broadcast today — pregame, postgame, in-game ... you name it.
With Bieber slated to pitch against Nestor Cortes in Game 2 of the 2022 ALDS this afternoon in the Bronx, he’ll be hoping for revenge, but the offense has another chance to make a statement against the Cleveland ace. Peter and Jake had excellent thoughts worth reading on Bieber within their ALDS previews; today, though, we’ll explore that 2020 showdown and what the Yankees can glean from it.
So how can the Yankees hitters prepare for Bieber's arsenal in comparison to 2020? First, they can expect slightly more usage of the slider. In 2020, he used that pitch only 11.6 percent of the time, primarily relying on his fastball (37.8%). Now, he's relying slightly less on the fastball (34.4%) and more on the slider (28.8%). A pitcher as talented as Bieber throwing his offspeed pitches more does give him less predictability, but it also allows him to make more mistakes.
Bieber’s fastball is also slower than it was during his peak, with about 150 fewer RPMs than he was in 2020. This season, he's thrown it at an average of 91.3 MPH, but in 2020, he threw it at an average speed of 94.1 MPH, which is a pretty significant difference. So, they will see a slower fastball and more offspeed pitches.
If Bieber makes mistakes like this to the Yankees in the upcoming game, he will continue to have problems.
The most noticeable takeaway from New York’s performance in the 2020 Wild Card is that their hitters took more advantage of the fastball and fastball-type pitches like cutters than the offspeed offerings. In particular, they looked up in the zone for the heaters, and when they could make contact, Bieber paid. The clip below is Brett Gardner smashing a high fastball to help drive in a run.
And here is video of a Luke Voit double that came off a cutter up in the zone.
Finally, this Gleyber Torres two-run home run was the result of a fastball, though it was lower than the others that managed to score runs.
As Peter in particular noted in his post, Bieber’s lesser 2022 heater is still a key part of his game in generating K’s:
Bieber attacked the Rays’ hitters on Friday with a clearly defined game plan. He pounded the fastball at the top of the zone and low gloveside to get ahead in counts and then threw a steady diet of cutters and sliders low and away to righties searching for the swing-and-miss.
So if the Yankees get more of those early fastballs at the top of the zone, they can be reassured knowing that this approach has worked before. Bieber could still zag in another direction, mainly because getting shelled as he did in a high-leverage playoff game doesn't quickly leave a pitcher's mind — even after a couple years. Regardless, no matter who is up at the plate, they should start by looking for high fastballs. Not only did they have success with them previously, but statistically, it will be slower than it was in his much-heralded 2020. They’ll just have to be wary of the secondaries if they fall behind.
No matter what kind of outings Bieber has had against the Yankees, he is still a talented pitcher. But the fact that they forced him out of a playoff game through 4.2 innings and 105 pitches thrown on his turf in a Cy Young season should provide the team some confidence. Night or day, Yankee Stadium is a different beast, and if the Yankees can take advantage of the same mistakes Bieber made two seasons ago, they'll be one step closer to moving on.