‘Not Justin’ resurgence? 3 ways Bieber is reclaiming 2020

March 20th, 2024

This story was excerpted from Mandy Bell's Guardians Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- On March 6, 2020, learned he’d be the Guardians’ Opening Day starter for the first time.

“I remember it being something that I had hoped for,” recalled Bieber, who’ll make his fifth consecutive Opening Day start when Cleveland travels to face the A’s on March 28. “I definitely don’t take it lightly. Didn’t then, and I don’t today. It’s always special.”

Back then, Bieber was coming off of an impressive 2019 campaign, stunning the baseball world when the last-minute All-Star Game addition hoisted the game’s MVP trophy in front of the hometown crowd. He was just beginning the transition from the guy with the “Not Justin” Player’s Weekend uniform to being known for his exceptional performance on the field.

The table was set for a successful 2020, and that’s exactly what it became, as Bieber won the AL Cy Young Award in the pandemic-shortened season. Now, there are three signs that he could rediscover that dominance in ‘24:

1. Velocity
Bieber has consistently hit 93-94 mph on the radar with his fastball this spring, nearly three mph faster than his average the past two years. His heater sat at 94.1 mph in 2020.

Two or three ticks might not seem like a lot, but Guardians pitching coach Carl Willis explained how much of an impact this can make:

“Once he started to accomplish [the velocity], it kind of led into some things improving that maybe you didn’t anticipate, or as he started to get some power back to the curveball and just now with the finish to his fastball, he’s finding a place for maybe another secondary pitch to be part of the game plan."

Willis added: “He’s been such a great feel-to-pitch guy in terms of attacking different quadrants of the zone, changing speeds [and] changing eye levels. With a little more power to that arsenal now, I think it makes it even more effective.”

2. Curveball
We don’t have Statcast in Goodyear, so there aren't concrete numbers to back up how effective Bieber’s curveball has been. All we can rely on is the eye test, and to most eyes, he’s passing with flying colors.

Bieber looked sharp even on the back fields in the early weeks of camp. He took it to the next level in his last Cactus League start on Sunday, when he allowed just two hits across 5 2/3 innings of one-run ball against the Reds. When Bieber’s curveball is working, he has the freedom to sequence his pitches in a multitude of ways that keep him unpredictable to hitters, which makes him even more dangerous. In 2020, Bieber's curveball was so good that he didn’t even need to be unpredictable. Batters knew it was coming, but they still couldn’t lay off of it.

“The velo’s up, [and] the secondary pitches are sharp. He looks great,” Guardians manager Stephen Vogt said. “He's working on some things, trying new pitches, trying different sequences that he has in the past, and he's executing."

3. Strikeouts
OK, sure, spring stats don’t mean much, but when Bieber racked up eight strikeouts against Cincinnati, it was hard not to have flashbacks of the dominant strikeout hurler he was during his Cy Young season. Bieber became more hittable after that, which isn’t always a bad thing, but paired with a decrease in velocity, he was in jeopardy of having more damage done against him. Here’s a quick breakdown:

2020: 98th percentile in whiff percentage, 98th percentile in strikeout percentage
2021: 97th percentile whiff, 94th percentile strikeout
2022: 78th percentile whiff, 65th percentile strikeout
2023: 37th percentile whiff, 28th percentile strikeout

The more chase, whiffs and strikeouts you get as a pitcher, the better your odds of escaping innings unscathed. Four years ago, Bieber was the king of this approach. And what he showed on Sunday against the Reds is that vintage Bieber is still in there.

Will that come out during the regular season? We have eight days left to find out.

“He just looks strong,” Vogt said. “He looks confident, and for me, he looks like Shane Bieber should look."