More velo, more break, more results? How Bieber evolved in winter

February 16th, 2024

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Six months ago, was sidelined with elbow trouble in the middle of another season of decreased velocity, lower chase rates and fewer strikeouts. Trade rumors had all been tabled until the offseason, as he landed on the 60-day IL after the All-Star break.

He fought his way back through in-season rehab to make two starts before Cleveland’s disappointing season came to an early end. It gave him enough confidence to head into the offseason ready to discover more. He was ready to embrace change.

So, he did.

Bieber decided to spend the offseason working out at Driveline in Scottsdale, Ariz. If you aren’t familiar with Driveline, think of a playground for data-driven players. In a pitcher’s case, batting cages are wired with cameras and screens to record and display real-time information about the action of a hurler’s stuff and the most minor parts of his mechanics. Bieber was interested in learning more about himself through the motion capture assessments that the organization boasts.

“I felt like I grew a lot,” Bieber said. “I was excited to dive into something new and did that and ended up gaining some knowledge, gaining some tools and just meeting some new, cool people. … I feel like I grew in that way and took steps forward that way. Even if I didn’t, I think there’s value in trying something new.”

Bieber’s fastball velocity has never ranked among the best on the flame-throwing leaderboards, but he was in the top half of hurlers in average fastball velocity in his Cy Young year in 2020 at 94.1 mph (65th percentile). Since then, he averaged 92.8 mph in an injury-riddled ‘21 (36th percentile), 91.3 mph in ’22 (15th percentile) and 91.3 mph in ’23 (13th percentile).

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

“I think the most basic thought process for me at the end of the year was, 'OK I feel strong, but there’s more in there and I’m losing power somewhere,'” Bieber said. “So I wanted to go to Driveline for their motion capture data to just refine my mechanics and found out they were still pretty ideal.”

Bieber worked closely with the Guardians as he explored this new routine, constantly reporting back to the organization with updates on his programs, his adjustments and his results. After his final session at Driveline, Chris Langin, Driveline’s director of pitching, took to social media to share Bieber’s results. During the session, Bieber threw 10 fastballs faster than 93 mph, which Langin noted was more than Bieber had in all of 2023 (8). Along with the fastball, Bieber's curveball velocity (83.7 mph) and vertical break (14 inches) was back to what it was in '20.

The dip in Bieber’s velocity has been the focal point of the last few seasons, but it’s not the only problem he’s been battling. His curveball was lethal in 2020, limiting hitters to a .095 batting average, the lowest mark in all of baseball (minimum 50 plate appearances). Bieber threw the pitch even more the next year (26.3% in '20, 31.2% in '21), but it didn't get the same results as opponent batting average on the pitch jumped to .233.

With worse results, Bieber threw it less and less (17.9% in 2022, 13.8% in '23), coinciding with the vertical movement on the offering plummeting. What he discovered over the winter was that he just needed to make a simple change.

“Learning over time that it had gotten a little more horizontal, a little less vertical,” Bieber said. “All it was, was a grip change. … That was really great news to hear and an easy adjustment so we were able to do that relatively quickly.”

Bieber was able to drown out the outside noise of trade rumors -- better than he has in the past -- and focused solely on bettering himself on the rubber. He enters camp with no physical restrictions after last year’s elbow inflammation, although he may be watched a little more closely than the rest of the hurlers as activities ramp up in camp. He has a new curveball grip and an extra tick or two behind the heater that should prompt better results.

Even when he’s been battling his stuff over the last few years, he’s remained consistent as Cleveland’s ace, finding new ways to get people out. But when all of his pitches are working at his disposal like they were in 2020, he’s proven just how lethal he can be.

“Refining my process and routine has, I wouldn’t say reinvigorated me, because I’ve always had that, I’ve always felt that fire,” Bieber said, “but it’s only enhanced it, along with some turnover with this team, the clubhouse and staff. I think everybody feels the opportunity to grow and get aggressive in our growth. That’s no different with myself.”