Velo bump sparks Bieber's 'encouraging' debut

Guardians ace sees results after winter work with Driveline

March 3rd, 2024

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- dug into the dirt around the rubber on the pitcher’s mound early in Saturday's contest against the Royals at Goodyear Ballpark and stared in toward his catcher. He delivered the first pitch of his Cactus League campaign and two little white numbers flashed on the bottom right corner of the scoreboard: “92 mph.”

His next pitch clocked in at 90 mph. This is the range his heater has floated around the last few years, so it was nothing alarming. But the next four pitches told a different story, as the radar gun displayed “94” after each offering.

These were consistent with the results Bieber saw at Driveline this offseason. In his final session at their facility before Spring Training got underway, he threw 10 fastballs that clocked in higher than 93 mph. Comparatively, he threw just eight at that velocity in all of 2023 (granted, his season was shortened due to right elbow inflammation in the second half).

Bieber had been working on the back fields at Cleveland’s training facility. It’s normal for the regular starters to take a little more time to get into Cactus League play, but the Guardians did want to keep a closer eye on Bieber and Triston McKenzie given the fact that each missed chunks of last season due to injury. After being sidelined coming out of the All-Star break, Bieber was only able to make two starts before the end of the season.

“It’s been a while. That’s how it felt,” Bieber said. “Body felt good. Everything was coming out good. I thought the results were probably not indicative of the box score.”

The goal was to have Bieber work two innings, though because of some walks jacking up his pitch count, he was pulled after 1 2/3 frames. Aside from the three free passes, he allowed two runs on one hit with no strikeouts.

“Being a little bit more aggressive in the zone and struggling to find it a little bit obviously with three walks, one two-out walk at the end there,” Bieber said. “They’re not ideal, but ultimately I think [there were] a lot of positives to be able to take from. No hard contact, not really any good swings, so just do a better job of getting ahead and putting guys away early.”

Spring Training outings aren’t just about results. Pitchers are trying to balance remaining competitive and getting outs with working on their mechanics, pitch sequencing or a plethora of other things. For example, on Saturday Bieber got two outs on changeups to righties after throwing zero changeups to righties in 2023. He gave up a single on a curveball to Sandy León when he said he would’ve been more aggressive with his pitch selection in a regular-season game.

Sure, results always matter to professional players, but Spring Training is about more than just a pitching line.

“It was great to see Shane get out there,” Guardians manager Stephen Vogt said. “It’s great to see his [velocity where it is]. Obviously he put a lot of hard work into that and changed some things up with his routine. Great to see some results as far as the velocity goes. So, all in all, great day for Shane.”

Fastball velocity and vertical movement on the curveball: those were two of the biggest focuses Bieber had when he chose to go to Driveline to make some changes this winter, hoping that his stuff would return to the form he had when he secured the Cy Young Award in 2020. Then, his heater averaged 94.1 mph. In an injury-riddled ‘21, he averaged 92.8. In ‘22 and ‘23, it sat at 91.3 mph.

Shane Bieber's average four-seam fastball velocity was 91.3 mph in 2023, tied for the lowest mark of his career.

No, 94 mph isn’t going to put him atop the velocity leaderboards. Even in ‘20 he sat in just the 65th percentile in fastball velocity. But we’ve seen just how electric he can be when his stuff is at its best. Maybe Saturday was the start of Bieber rediscovering his 2020 self.

“Yeah, I’m happy with where I’m at,” Bieber said. “There’s a lot of work to be done, which is encouraging, and it’s what I like to be able to do is to work toward something. So establishing the zone a little bit better and commanding my fastball a little bit better going into my next outing will be paramount, but the stuff I worked on, it’s showing up for sure.”