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Yankees Potential Trade Target: Shane Bieber

What’s behind the Cy Young Award winner’s recent dip in form, and has it lowered his trade price into reasonable territory?

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Cincinnati Reds v Cleveland Guardians Photo by George Kubas/Diamond Images via Getty Images

Last week, Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic evaluated three top-of-the-market starters who are generating trade buzz this winter. He listed Dylan Cease, Corbin Burnes, and Shane Bieber as the staff aces drumming up the most interest following Tyler Glasnow’s move to the Dodgers. I’ve already analyzed the potential fits of Cease and Burnes, so today let’s turn our attention to Bieber.

2023 Statistics: 21 starts, 128 IP, 3.80 ERA (110 ERA+), 3.87 FIP, 3.96 xFIP, 20.1 percent K%, 6.4 percent BB%, 2.1 fWAR

2024 FanGraphs Depth Charts Projections: 31 starts, 193 IP, 3.92 ERA, 3.95 FIP, 22.4 percent K%, 6.3 percent BB%, 2.9 fWAR

Contract Status: Projected to earn $12.2 million in third and final year of arbitration eligibility, free agent following 2024 season.

Bieber burst onto the scene as another impressive young starter off Cleveland’s seemingly endless conveyor belt of pitching talent. From his debut in 2018 through 2022, he placed in the top ten of starting pitchers across a litany of categories including fWAR, FIP, and K-BB%. He finished as a top-eight pitcher in fWAR in three of those seasons, leading the league in 2020 en route to capturing the AL Cy Young Award.

For as good as he was through 2022, 2023 has to represent the nadir of Bieber’s six years in the big leagues as he posted career worsts in practically every pitching metric. His strikeout-minus-walk rate and called-strike-plus-whiff rate fell below the elite levels of 20 percent and 30 percent, respectively. His chase rate fell below 30 percent for the first time since 2018 while his whiff rate dipped below 25 percent for the first time in his career. Though never a soft contact merchant, opposing hitters teed off especially hard when they made contact, Bieber falling into the second percentile in average exit velocity and third percentile in hard hit rate

Courtesy of Baseball Savant

All of this traces back to a precipitous decline in fastball velocity. During his Cy Young campaign of 2020, his four-seamer averaged 94.1 mph. That’s all the way down to 91.3 mph in each of the last two seasons. Stephen Sutton-Brown recently penned a fabulous, comprehensive look at the effect of the loss of velocity over at Baseball-Prospectus, and as you would expect, all aspects of a pitcher’s effectiveness suffer as velocity drops. Below, I’ve plotted the relationship between Bieber’s four-seam velocity and FIP, whiff rate, and xwOBA.

FIP vs. Four-seam velocity:

Whiff rate vs. Four-seam velocity:

xwOBA vs. Four-seam velocity:

As you can see, there is a rather robust relationship between four-seam velocity and whiff rate and inverse relationship between four-seam velocity and FIP and four-seam velocity and xwOBA. Across the board, Bieber has performed worse the slower his four-seamer became. It’s also worth noting that the spin rates on his fastball, slider, and curveball have dropped at least 100 rpms since the league’s crackdown on foreign substances, with the four-seamer losing three inches of rise over that timespan. In effect, Bieber went from having the 17th-best four-seamer in terms of rise vs. average in 2020 to just the 72nd-best four-seamer in terms of rise vs. average.

We also know that the other pitches in a pitcher’s arsenal suffer from a drop in fastball velocity. 2023 was the first season since 2018 that the whiff rate on the slider and curveball fell below 40 percent. Both pitches combined for well over 100 strikeouts in each of 2019 and 2022, but yielded just 72 punch outs in 2023.

Bieber also comes with some concerning recent health issues. He’s only passed the 200 inning mark twice — in 2019 and 2022 — failing to breach 128 innings in each of the other four. A subscapularis strain in his pitching shoulder limited him to just two starts in the second-half of 2021. A similar fate befell him in 2023, with elbow inflammation costing him all but two second-half starts in 2023.

This recent regression, the one remaining year of team control, and Bieber’s salary for 2023 will likely motivate Cleveland to move him this year, whether this winter or at the trade deadline. His $12.2 million projected arbitration number would constitute one-seventh of the Guardians’ Opening Day payroll, and given the uncertainty about RSN payments following Diamond Sports Group’s bankruptcy, his salary may be one they look to get off the books.

Shane Bieber is likely no longer the pitcher who won a Cy Young and sat near the top of fWAR leaderboards at the turn of the decade. When considering all the factors we’ve mentioned — the regression, his salary, Cleveland’s need for prospects as they continue their rebuild — Bieber may be the most affordable of the pitchers mentioned in Rosenthal’s article. That’s not to say he can’t still help a big league rotation in 2024. Bieber has credited Matt Blake in the past with helping him optimize pitch shapes, so that connection is one that could pay dividends for the Yankees. New York needs multiple pitchers to fix their rotation, and the upside of his almost-five-win 2022 campaign may hint at the effectiveness left yet in the 28-year-old righty’s arm.