Bieber hopes 10 K's mean return to form

May 22nd, 2022

CLEVELAND -- At a certain point in Sunday afternoon’s 4-2 loss to the Tigers,  was sick of falling behind in the count.

“Enough's enough,” he recalled telling catcher Austin Hedges. “No matter what the philosophy is or the action of the pitch, I need to get ahead of hitters and put us in a better situation to succeed.”

Bieber made an adjustment, and despite the loss at a time when the Guards’ bats aren’t exactly running hot and the defense behind him wasn’t much better, came out with an encouraging outing -- seven innings, three runs (two earned) on six hits.

Most notably, the Biebs struck out 10 batters for his first double-digit strikeout total in almost exactly a year (May 27, 2021 at Detroit) and had his highest whiff percentage (46%) of the season. This was actually the sixth consecutive start against the Tigers in which Bieber notched 10 or more K’s -- tying the record against Detroit originally set by Nolan Ryan from 1976 to '79.

Actually, Bieber showed up to work Sunday wearing a T-shirt with an image of none other than Nolan Ryan. How’s that for a coincidence?

Alas, for now, the comparisons to Ryan end there. As has been noted a time or 20, Bieber’s velocity is not at a Ryan-like level, nor is it at the level opponents were accustomed to seeing from Bieber in the past. His average four-seam fastball velocity was 90.4 mph on Sunday, 2.4 ticks below his average in 2021 and nearly four full ticks from his average during his AL Cy Young season in 2020.

There are various possible explanations for Beiber’s velo drop, including the recovery from last year’s shoulder trouble, the shortened spring and the adjustment to MLB’s enforcement of its sticky substance ban. Maybe it’s all of those reasons combined. Whatever the case, what matters is not so much the velocity itself but what Bieber does with it.

Sunday’s outing -- against a Tigers team whose offensive struggles are well-documented -- marked the first time this season that Bieber didn’t let a lack of electricity prevent him from achieving the rate of swings and misses that were once routine for him. His whiff rate this year had been just 26.4%, compared with a 40.7% mark in 2020.

So Sunday’s start was a clear step in the right direction.

“Guys pitch with what they have,” manager Terry Francona said. “If velocity ticks up or ticks down over the course of season, you have to pitch with where you are. I think Biebs has a great understanding of that.”

Within this start, Bieber showed an understanding of the adjustment he needs to make.

“Some teams go out there and they expect a lot of offspeed early, and know that we might fall behind,” Hedges explained. “So we started throwing a little bit more aggressively to make sure we can get ahead, so that we can expand later.”

Aces notoriously set the tone for the rotation, and, for much of this season, Bieber’s tone -- and that of the Guardians' starters -- has not been to his or their usual standard.

Lately, though, the situation has improved. Bieber was effective in holding the Twins to a run on seven hits in six innings on May 14. The rotation’s ERA since that outing is a collective 2.06 in six starts.

“I think they're getting into that midseason form where they're gonna be able to go out and go 100-plus pitches every time,” Hedges said. “When they're doing that, we have a chance to win every night.”

It has to start with Bieber. Whether his velocity returns to his previous levels or not, he has to get ahead and stay ahead. For the team, Sunday’s game was a letdown, between the bats’ inability to put together a big inning against somewhat shaky rookie Tigers pitcher Alex Faedo and a playable ball getting past first baseman Josh Naylor when Detroit scored the go-ahead run in the fifth. But for Bieber, this was an encouraging outing. He recognized an issue, corrected it and K’d his way through the seventh.

“We've all had our hindrances at the beginning of the season, and that comes from a bunch of things and different situations for different guys,” Bieber said. “I know the last couple of weeks have been kind of difficult, not being on a consistent five-day routine [because of rainouts]. But I know guys are excited to move forward and remove the bad, and keep the momentum moving forward.”