CLEVELAND -- In the middle of May, Indians starter Shane Bieber didn’t quite feel like himself on the rubber, and much of that was because he lost a feel for his 2020 go-to pitch: his curve. When the curveball came back, his results mirrored what he was used to in his Cy Young season. But when his curveball appeared flat again on Sunday, the outcome followed suit.
For the first time in his career, Bieber gave up multiple homers off his curveball in the 6-2 series finale loss to the Mariners at Progressive Field. Entering Sunday, the 26-year-old had allowed just seven total homers on the pitch in his career but has now given up three in 2021.
“Lately, I haven't been able to rely on it as heavily as I did at points earlier in the season or last year, specifically,” Bieber said. “But that's pitching. That's OK. There were a few instances today where I could have escaped some jams and gotten myself out of some troubling situations and just wasn't able to. That's the game. And you can't beat yourself up too much for it.”
Bieber is human, although he’s done everything in his power to convince us otherwise over the last two seasons. These hiccups come with the role of being a big leaguer. However, it’s clear how much his success has relied on his curve. In his impressive 2020 campaign, he held hitters to a .095 average (and just a .114 expected batting average) on the pitch and had held batters to a .212 average in 2021 entering Sunday. But in his three-start stretch between May 11 and May 22 (a span in which he posted a 4.32 ERA), that average rose to .286 against the curve.
But on May 27, Bieber said his curveball finally felt normal coming out of his hand once again, and he collectively pitched to a 1.80 ERA in the previous three starts before facing the Mariners. His fastball velocity dropped down a tick and the spin rate on his curve dipped 284 revolutions per minute from his 2021 average, as the rest of his pitches didn’t have as drastic of a change.
“I think it’s searching for that feel,” Bieber said. “Pitches, pitch grips, feel with them come and go throughout the long season like this. Honestly, I’m feeling my slider and curveball a little bit better than I was three, four, five starts ago. It just comes down to setting them up better and executing more consistently.”
Although he was able to rack up eight strikeouts, maintaining his lead atop the MLB leaderboard, Bieber’s day came to an end in the sixth after allowing five runs on 10 hits (including two homers) with two walks in 5 2/3 innings on 107 pitches. It marked the first time in 38 regular-season starts that he permitted more than four earned runs. He watched his pitch count soar quicker than he would’ve liked, especially on the heels of a night in which the bullpen had to cover 9 1/3 frames.
“Obviously I would’ve liked to go further, longer, more efficient and less runs,” Bieber said. “Yesterday was a long one for the 'pen, especially. They did an awesome job all day. I was going out there today to try to give them some relief a little bit and I guess in that sense was able to do that. Just definitely not the way I had planned it and wanted to.”
But it’s more than just sparing the bullpen after one rough night. The Indians have just one off-day (June 23) remaining in the first-half of the season and will need to attempt to keep the bullpen as fresh as possible until then. Although that’s something the rotation has been able to handle in the past, it’s become more challenging now that Bieber and Aaron Civale are the only two guaranteed starters to toe the rubber every fifth day. But Bieber said that hasn’t added any additional pressure to him.
“We’re going through some adversity,” Bieber said. “But I think it’s not just the rotation, it’s the bullpen as we saw pick us up huge yesterday. It’s every single arm ready to rise to the occasion and the challenge. As long as we continue to do that, we’re definitely gonna be better for it once we get arms back and guys continue to get back in that groove. I think we’re gonna be in a real good spot come All-Star break and after that.”