CLEVELAND -- It was supposed to be his “breakout year.”
Indians starter Shane Bieber arrived at Major League Spring Training for the first time in his career in February with the hope of locking down the fifth spot in a star-studded starting rotation.
He was no longer a rookie and his 20 games (19 starts) the year prior had given fans, analysts and his organization much to be excited about in the upcoming season. He posted a 4.55 ERA with 118 strikeouts in 114 2/3 innings, but his stuff spoke way louder than his numbers, causing the expectations to grow.
If that pressure wasn’t enough, Bieber’s importance to his club multiplied rapidly as the regular season got underway. First, Mike Clevinger landed on the injured list after straining his upper back in his second start of the season. Then Corey Kluber fractured his right arm on May 1. A month later, Carlos Carrasco was diagnosed with leukemia. Eight weeks later, Trevor Bauer was traded to the Reds.
The one constant -- and rock of the rotation -- was Bieber.
“I try not to put that much pressure on myself,” Bieber said. “I think as long as your expectations are high and you work hard, things will work out. I don’t think I put too much pressure on myself when all those injuries happened. It might have just been organic and natural.”
What the 24-year-old described as “organic and natural” was stepping up in a way that allowed his name to be discussed when the American League Cy Young Award was brought up -- even if it’s just as an honorable mention.
What went right?
Nearly everything. Bieber finished the year with a 3.28 ERA, three complete games (two shutouts), 259 strikeouts in 214 1/3 innings (an average of 10.9 strikeouts per nine innings) and a 1.054 WHIP in 33 starts and one relief appearance.
“Personally, it’s been an extremely fulfilling season,” Bieber said. “Looking back objectively about the season and how it went ... for me, personally, I didn’t think I had the greatest start and then [I was] able to kind of refine everything and become more consistent.”
Bieber spent a lot of time working on his changeup over the offseason, but it was his curveball that saw the most improvement in 2019. In his rookie season, the righty produced swings and misses 31.3 percent of the time with the curve, while his whiff percentage in ’19 was 48.7. Along with that, his strikeout percentage against the pitch saw the same type of jump, increasing from 28.2 percent to 39.9.
“He’s incredible, especially watching him from the outfield,” Indians center fielder Oscar Mercado said. “There’s not a negative things to say about him. He’s ready to compete every time and he gives us an opportunity to win every time he’s out there and it’s awesome playing behind him.”
What went wrong?
Like the rest of the Tribe, Bieber showed signs of running out of gas toward the end of the season. He didn't give up 10 or more hits in an outing until Sept. 15 (11), and did so again in his final start in Chicago (10).
Bieber tied with Philadelphia's Aaron Nola, throwing the eighth most pitches of all starting pitchers this season and ranked 11th with an average of 101 pitches per outing. Indians manager Terry Francona has already started thinking about how they will alter Bieber’s Spring Training program next year to extend his sharpness through the end of the year.
“We’ll probably do a lot with him like we have in the past with Kluber,” Francona said. “We'll ease him into the games. We'll have him throw simulated games just to keep down the intensity. You don't want to do it too much, because you don't want to start the season not ready, so there's a balance you try to strike.”
Even with the three complete games on his 2019 résumé, the 24-year-old celebrated his most special moment outside of the 162-game schedule. Just days before the All-Star Game, Bieber was informed that he’d be replacing Mike Minor on the American League roster in front of a home crowd at Progressive Field.
In the fifth inning, he entered to face Willson Contreras, Ketel Marte and Ronald Acuña Jr., fanning them all in order to earn All-Star Game MVP honors.
“Just the way the whole All-Star thing happened and a lot of things [this year] just turned out a lot better than expected,” Bieber said. “So I’m extremely grateful for the opportunities this year presented and, fortunately, I was able to make the most of them.”
It's hard to imagine improving on what truly became a breakout season for Bieber in 2019. The Indians will need him to carry his momentum into 2020 and build on it to help the rotation remain one of the most dominant in baseball. With the likelihood of adding a young arm to the starting staff (or two, if the Indians decide to deal Kluber), like Zach Plesac or Aaron Civale, the team will look to Bieber for leadership both on and off the mound.
“Bieber will come back stronger than ever,” Francona said. “And he'll probably figure out a way to be even better next year.”