Shane Bieber on the Art and Science of Pitching

© Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Shane Bieber isn’t a prototypical modern-day pitcher. Unlike many of his peers who are on the mound pumping gas, the 27-year-old Cleveland Guardians right-hander succeeds by slicing and dicing, carving up the opposition with an array of well-placed offerings. Bieber’s heater is averaging just 91.3 mph on the season, and even in his higher-velocity 2020 Cy Young Award year, he was anything but a radar gun darling. From the time he entered pro ball in 2016 as a fourth-round pick out of the University of California, Santa Barbara, Bieber has been a technician, not a flamethrower.

It’s hard to argue with the results. Over the past four seasons, Bieber is 36-19 with a 3.04 ERA and a 2.99 FIP in 513 innings. Despite a reputation for having nothing-to-write-home-about stuff, he’s fanned 641 batters while allowing just 427 hits. In 20 starts this year, Bieber has a 3.39 ERA and a 2.96 FIP, tied for ninth-best in the junior circuit.

Bieber discussed the art and science of pitching when the Guardians visited Fenway Park in the final week of July.


David Laurila: At a time where a lot of guys are trying to overpower hitters, you’re viewed as a “pitcher.” With that in mind, where did you learn to pitch?

Shane Bieber: “I feel like I’ve been ‘pitching’ from a young age. My parents were involved — my dad was super involved — but the guy who taught me the most about pitching was Ben Siff. He was my travel ball coach for nine or 10 years, starting when I was nine years old. I’m still really close with him.

“Youth sports has blown up since then — it’s become more and more expensive — but at the time, he was affordable. We had a great group of kids playing tournaments every weekend, and he both was an incredible coach and an incredible person with all of us. A bunch of us went to college.”

Laurila: Youth baseball to college ball is obviously a big jump, and so is college ball to pro ball. Following up on my original question, at what point do you feel you really learned how to pitch?

Bieber: “You mean the art of pitching? I honestly think I learned that pretty early on. In terms of ‘When did it click?’… I guess I’d say sophomore or junior year of college, and then in my first year of pro ball it started to click a bit more. At the same time, things like sequencing and pitch tunneling, and the art of challenging and throwing strikes, are something I learned at an early age. I wasn’t throwing very hard, so that’s how I learned to succeed.

“Being aggressive and locating the ball were my strengths, and then college is when I learned more of the intricacies. My head coach at UC Santa Barbara, Andrew Checketts, is a real pitching mind. I picked up a lot from him, as well as from my teammates. It was a great time for me to develop mentally.

“My first year in pro ball, I got on a weight program and started trying to throw the ball harder. I was using all of the skills and techniques that I’d learned — I was still prioritizing attacking hitters and locating the ball — but was trying to do it a little bit more aggressively.”

Laurila: What was the progression of your velocity?

Bieber: “In high school, I was throwing 84-86 [mph] by senior year. I jumped up a little bit my freshman year [of college], and by the time I was drafted, I was throwing 89-91. When I got into pro ball, it jumped up a little more.

“It’s been a little bit down this year. I’ve been trying to figure out some things, post-going on the shelf last year. That’s something that can be difficult, kind of relearning your mechanics and what’s most efficient for you. I’m embracing that challenge right now.”

Laurila: How much of your pitchability would you say is innate, as opposed to learned?

Bieber: “I think it’s a good mix. I wish I could put a number on it, which I can’t, but I think you need to have a feel. Some guys have greater feel for the baseball than others. Some guys are more arms, and some are more artists, or however you want to phrase it. But while some pitchers can overpower you with amazing stuff, it was pretty clear to me early on that in order to take the sport as far as I could, I would have to take advantage of my strengths. Power isn’t one of them.”

Laurila: Do you view pitching as more of an art or more of a science?

Bieber: “That’s a good question. Somewhere in the middle? I don’t think it’s one or the other. I’d probably always thought of it as more of an art, but over the last few years with all the data that’s available… I mean, you want to use it to your advantage, right? You can find out what works best for you — you can find out all sorts of different things — and that’s where it’s kind of transitioned more into the science aspect of pitching.

“Ultimately, keeping it a good mix is probably what will put you in the best position to succeed. Even with all that data, and all that science, you have to go out there and perform. You have to get outs. That’s what matters.”

Laurila: That said, when did you start learning how your individual pitches profile from an analytics standpoint, as opposed to what you intuitively saw and felt on the mound?

Bieber: “I’d say early on in pro ball. I was drafted in 2016, and everything started to transition into that realm around from there. I wasn’t introduced to things like HawkEye or TrackMan in college. Pro ball, maybe 2017, is when things started to get put into numbers and graphs and all that. But I’ve never really tried to change me or my pitches. I just try to refine them as best as I can.”

Laurila: You were never directed, or decided on your own, to start utilizing certain pitches and/or locations more often, or less frequently, than you had been?

Bieber: “Throughout the minors, I was mostly just trying to compete and take advantage of opportunities. I felt pretty confident in my stuff and my process. Nobody ever really told me to do anything much differently. But I was developing a curveball, which was big for me.

“In its simplest form, in terms of pitches and locations, I think that a right-handed slider is always going to be best down and away, down and to the glove side. That’s what is going to allow the pitch to break the most and be the sharpest — have it be straightest for the longest with late break. A curveball is always going to be better down than up.

“The fastball is where I think guys get the most profiles from. Some guys have a high riding fastball, other guys have a sinking fastball, and that’s where you figure out where you want to throw it.”

Laurila: How would you describe your fastball?

Bieber: “Right now, I’m not doing as good of a job as I want to driving the ball down. I actually have pretty good carry when the ball is down in the zone, and that is where I want all of my breaking pitches to work off of. If I’m able to locate my fastball down — really driving that thing down, instead of just kind of filleting it in there and having it run — everything works better. The ride I get down there is how I’m able to get freezes and takes. I have a relatively sneaky fastball in that respect.”

Laurila: Do you have better stuff than some people tend to give you credit for?

Bieber: “No doubt. That’s why I’m… I do see merit in numbers and take everything into account, but I don’t live and die by them. If I did, then I wouldn’t necessarily be where I’m at today.”

Laurila: By “numbers,” you’re referring to pitch metrics?

Bieber: “Pitch metrics. Exactly. But when it comes right down to it, to keep things in their simplest form you have to go out there and compete, and be good. That’s what I try to do. I don’t want to put too much weight into finishing an outing and saying, ‘OK, what was my spin today?’ I’d rather focus on my strike percentage, my execution rate, and how my pitches were playing off of each other.”

Laurila: That said, do you need to fool hitters — “outthink” might be a better word — to get outs?

Bieber: “Not always. Maybe I have to fool them to strike them out. But I wouldn’t say for a whole at-bat. I do think there are situations where you can outthink a hitter. You play that cat-and-mouse game, knowing what you threw them last time, what their swings looked like, and from there you have to figure out if they’re making an adjustment, or if they’re going to stick to that same approach. That’s the beauty of it, the intricacies of being a pitcher.”

Laurila: Any final thoughts?

Bieber: “I don’t think so. We’ve covered some good topics. And I definitely like the ‘Is it more art or science?’ question. I like that question quite a bit. For me, it’s both. It kind of has to be both.”

David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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3 months ago

Really love these articles. They’re just so more insightful than the standard fare you get on most sports websites.

Thank you!