Bieber's focus on slider in first spring start

Ace looking to refine another breaking pitch, work deeper into games

March 1st, 2021

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Two weeks after won the American League Cy Young Award, he told Indians pitching coach Carl Willis he had turned the page. And the one area that he and the coaching staff agreed he could improve upon for 2021 was working deeper into games.

“There were times last year, when, as good as he was -- and he was,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “But there was maybe one inning or two innings of a game where it just seemed like he had to really work, and that would cost him an inning later in the game.”

Bieber had his first test on Monday in the Tribe’s 8-6 loss to the Royals at Goodyear Ballpark. After a sharp, 1-2-3 inning in the first, the 25-year-old right-hander ran into trouble in the second, allowing four runs (three earned) on four hits with one walk and three strikeouts. And because of his plan with backstop Roberto Pérez entering the game, Bieber didn’t have all of his weapons to escape it.

Bieber was slated to throw two full innings on Monday, but was pulled a little early (1 2/3 innings) after his pitch count started to escalate. He and Pérez had committed to throwing only fastballs and changeups in the first frame and working in the slider in the second. That means Bieber was without his go-to pitch -- the curve -- and his cutter to escape the jam.

“I found myself at certain points in the second inning like 'Ahh ... the right pitch here would be a curveball or get something swing-and-miss under the zone,'” Bieber said. “But at the end of the day, I just told myself that this is what we're committing to. You've got to get better somehow.

“So, you've got to learn a little bit more about yourself and see if you can give yourself multiple options deep in the season in August with multiple pitches, I think you'll just be better for it. That's what it came down to today. Like I said, I'm just going to pull positives and move on to the next one.”

Bieber tossed three complete games in 2019 and prided himself on eating up as many innings as he could. In 2020, as dominant as he was, Bieber admitted that he may have gone for more swings-and-misses rather than attacking a hitter in the same way as he had in the past, which drove up his pitch count earlier in games.

“I think that's really my identity,” Bieber said of going deep into games. “With the shortened season, every run, every pitch seemed so elevated. Roberto and I kind of found ourselves going for more swing-and-miss and missed bats and found ourselves in more crucial situations than we would have liked. Going into this year, that's something I'd like to continue to improve on and get back to my old ways.”

In order to get back to his old ways, Bieber wanted to bring back his old go-to pitch: his slider. In 2019, Bieber turned to the slider 26.5 percent of the time (his second most-used pitch that year), while throwing it just 11.6 percent of the time last year, as his curveball became more devastating. So, this offseason, Bieber decided to revamp his slider so that he could pair his best weapon from 2019 with his top pitch from ’20.

“I love my curveball, and I don’t want to steer away from it,” Bieber said, “but having another breaking pitch that’s doing something else and giving hitters a different look will be big for me.”

Although the second frame against the Royals didn’t go quite the way Bieber had envisioned it, the Tribe’s ace was determined to concentrate on the positives from his first spring outing, which included how his slider looked. And that will continue to be one of his main focuses as camp continues.

“There's some positives to take away from today in learning how to shape the slider how I want to,” Bieber said. “I started to figure it out in the second inning. Just gotta look at the positives. It's Spring Training. Go out there and get the next one.”