Some may argue the truncated 2020 season cannot define a player's breakout, but Shane Bieber took a major step forward as a pitcher. Bieber became the first pitcher since Johan Santana in 2006 to win the Triple Crown (wins, strikeouts, ERA) in the majors and the ninth pitcher overall. Bieber went 8-1 during his 12 starts logging 77.1 innings, 122 strikeouts against 21 walks, a 1.63 ERA, 2.52 SIERA and 0.87 WHIP. His 122 strikeouts marked the sixth highest total in modern history (since 1900) through a pitcher's first 12 starts along with this record:

After recording seven double digit strikeout games during his first 52 starts, Bieber notched one in 66.7 percent of them in 2020:

For a reference point, Max Scherzer , Jacob deGrom and Trevor Bauer tied for second in games with at least 10 strikeouts with five each. Bieber also registered at least eight strikeouts in all 12 of his starts last season boosting his strikeout percentage to a career best 41.1 percent, almost 11 points above his mark in 2019. Benefiting from a very friendly 91.1 left-on-base percentage (strand rate), Bieber should incur some migration to the mean in 2021 but the changes in his arsenal along with the improved strikeout rates should not be discounted.

Before delving into his pitches, Bieber improved his swinging strike percentage to 17.1 in 2020 up 3.1 percent compared to 2019 while reducing contact and generated more swings outside the strike zone. Due to his tremendous command, Bieber's going to allow a high amount of contact in the strike zone, but he mitigates it by producing swinging strikes.

Transitioning to Statcast, Bieber allowed 153 batted ball events yielding 11 barrels (7.2 percent), an 89.3 MPH average exit velocity and 43.1 hard hit percentage. Noting his propensity of contact in the strike zone, Bieber's expected numbers finished strong in 2020 with a .187 expected batting average (xBA), .320 expected slugging (xSLG), .242 expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA) and 2.63 xERA. Statcast's xERA does not prove predictive but reflective of results in season due to quality of contact. 

Despite Bieber's swing percentage going down by one percent, his whiff rate rose by 10 percent to 40.7 percent. With some tweaks to his pitch usage and the introduction of a cutter, here's a look at his swinging strikes from 2020:

Taking this a step further, here's Bieber's results by pitch with expected numbers and strikeout indicators included:

  • Bieber 4-seam fastball: 37.4% usage, .222 xBA, .267 xwOBA, 25.7 whiff percentage, 28.7 put away percent, 40.2 K%, 54.4 HH%
  • Bieber Curve: 26.3% usage, .117 xBA, .133 xwOBA, 51.5 whiff percentage, 30.7 put away percent, 56.2 K%, 35.3 HH%
  • Bieber Cutter (New): 16.2% usage, .308 xBA, .359 xwOBA, 33.3 whiff percentage, 21.1 put away percent, 10 K%, 44.1 HH%
  • Bieber Slider: 11.6% usage, .130 xBA, .265 xwOBA, 61.2 whiff percentage, 34.3 put away percent, 53.5 K%, 35.7 HH%
  • Bieber Change-up: 8.5% usage, .171 xBA, .228 xwOBA, 53.7 whiff percentage, 20 put away percent, 11.1 K%, 21.4 HH%

Bieber used his four-seam fastball less compared to 2019 while increasing his curve usage, added a cutter and decreased his slider use despite its effectiveness. Mining this information, Bieber could defray some of his regression with his cutter improving or by throwing more curves and sliders with the fastball rate staying in line with last season. Here's how all of his pitches worked in terms of his zone profile courtesy of Statcast:

While whiff and put away percent’s tell a story, using Brooks Baseball to illustrate how Bieber's arsenal fared in terms of swinging strike percentage and ground ball rate, here's his pitches once again with these factors:

  • Bieber 4-seam fastball: 10.1 SwStr%, 23.8 GB%
  • Bieber Curve: 25.1 SwStr%, 82.5 GB%
  • Bieber Cutter: 18.9 SwStr%, 38.9 GB%
  • Bieber Slider: 27.2 SwStr%, 68.8 GB%
  • Bieber Change-up: 21.4 SwStr%, 71.4 GB%

Since Bieber allows home runs, once again, using his slider and curve more may unlock a step forward in his already improved ground ball percentage from 2020. When looking at these numbers, his four-seam fastball, curve, slider and change-up swinging strike percentages all improved last season. His change, slider and curve also produced higher ground ball rates. Suffice it to say, there's plenty to love in regard to his repertoire. 

Over his last 27 starts, Bieber owns a 15-6 record in 179.1 innings with 240:38 K:BB, 2.46 ERA, 3.03 SIERA and 1.00 WHIP. Within this expanded sample, Bieber's ground ball percentage sits at 44.1 with a 33.9 strikeout rate, 5.4 walk percent and 83.4 left-on-base percentage. His 15.1 swinging strike percentage ranks fifth among all qualified pitchers since the start of the second half of 2019 through the end of last season. Here's his ranks in other key pitching categories in this sample:

  • Wins - tied for 2nd
  • Innings pitched – 1st
  • ERA - fifth
  • WHIP - sixth
  • K-BB% - fourth
  • Strikeouts - second

In order to set his baseline, using his last three-year data helps paint a picture. Bieber racked up 34 wins in 48 decisions in 66 outings (64 starts) over 406.1 innings with a 499:84 K:BB, 3.06 ERA, 3.21 SIERA and 1.10 WHIP. This includes a 45.5 ground ball percentage, 30.4 strikeout rate, 5.1 walk percent and 13.9 swinging strike percentage. His ranks in pitching categories in this time frame:

  • Wins - tied for 6th
  • ERA - 12th
  • Innings pitched - 23rd
  • Strikeouts – 5th
  • K-BB% - 5th
  • SIERA – 5th

Without being privy to how Bieber may attack hitters in 2021, there's enough in his arsenal for growth which should defer a collapse in his ratios despite his team selling off key parts of the offense. Both projection systems agree on his record with some variance in his ERA:

  • Bieber 2021 Steamer projection: 14-9, 32 starts, 202 innings, 252:49 K:BB, 3.30 ERA, 1.09 WHIP
  • Bieber 2021 ZiPS projection: 14-9, 32 starts, 197.2 innings, 230:36 K:BB, 3.51 ERA, 1.08 WHIP

Since SIERA stands out as the most predictive indicator of ERA, his range of 3.03 over his last 27 starts along with his 3.21 career mark set up well for his future. Viewing his projection sets above, taking the Steamer strikeout total though it could end up in the 270-ish range due to his swinging strike and whiff rate improvements by pitch last season. Replicating 2020 for Bieber in this regard may be difficult, but plan on around 275 strikeouts in 200 innings pace (12.4 strikeouts per nine). Teams remain hesitant to push inning totals if there's a full season in 2021 but Bieber could finish with an ERA between 2.80-to-3.10 with a WHIP of 1.05 or better and a bevy of strikeouts. Pretty, pretty good.

Statistical Credits:

ZiPS courtesy of Dan Szymborski - Game Notes