A while back, I was tagged in a Twitter thread talking about the predictive/sticky nature of hard hit balls for pitchers. The reason behind that discussion was the Cleveland pitcher Shane Bieber.
Last season, he put up some fantastic numbers in his first full season which gave him either a 5, 5.6 or 4.9 win season, depending on your personal flavour of WAR. This is elite, so why are we having this discussion? The titular question comes to the front as Bieber was in his first full season; people don’t know which parts of his performance are predictive of future performance at this level.
Why the question lingers is that there is potentially some underlying concerns in the Statcast metrics.
When hitters made contact, they made contact. His exit velocity and hard hit rate were in the eighth and sixth percentiles. But is this something to worry about? We have long known that a pitcher’s BABIP is mostly a function of a pitcher’s defence and luck, rather than persistent skill. And I showed in a previous piece that the year-on-year trend for wOBACON (wOBA on contact) shows no predictability as well at the overall level.
Are hard hit rate and exit velocity predictive?
I took all the pitchers who pitched to 200 plus batters in the Statcast era (2015 onward) and compared their exit velocity and hard hit rate from one season to the next. There were 967 back-to-back seasons where the batter limiter were met. These gave me r-squared linear correlation of 0.13 for hard hit rate and 0.12 for exit velocity, so a very minor level of predictability.
To put that into context for Shane Beiber, his average exit velocity in 2019 was 90.4 mph, and for pitchers who had an average exit velocity in the 90-91 range, 76% of them had an average exit velocity of less than 90 mph the year afterwards. We should be thinking about him being more likely to regress to the league average (88.1 mph) in 2020 than stay at the 90.4 mph level.
What is Shane good at?
Going back to our Statcast percentiles, where Bieber excels is in Whiff% and K%, and one which isn’t shown there is his BB% which is in the top 5% of the league. Let’s look at that whiff rate (swing and miss rate).
In 2019, there were 72 qualified pitchers, and Bieber’s whiff rate of 30.7% was good enough for 13th best sandwiched between Strasburg and Darvish. Cole leads the way for this metric, and you can tell by looking at the names that this is a good list to be near the top.
What is different for Bieber compared to nearly everyone else on this list is how he gets to that rate, if we split it down to rate in the zone and rate out of the zone, you will start to see something interesting.
Here is the top 15 for whiff rate on pitches in the zone. A lot of the names are the same, but you will see that Shane isn’t there anymore. His zone whiff rate is 16.9% and only good enough for 32nd best. But if we look at outside the zone, we see a completely different picture.
Bieber is second best behind only the phenom that is Gerrit Cole. This shows us what Bieber is good at. He doesn’t have the raw speed or spin rate required to get those high whiff rates in the zone, but what he does do is get hitters to chase his pitches that are out of the zone.
If you looked at those three list carefully you may have seen another name which stands out in a similar way to Shane Bieber, and that is Patrick Corbin. He has worse whiff rates than Bieber both in and out of the zone (15.8% and 53.6% respectively) but has a better whiff rate overall. This is as he throws more of his pitches out of the zone, where the whiff rate is higher.
If we look at Corbin’s Statcast percentiles for 2019 it paints a very similar picture to Bieber.
I think Corbin is an excellent comparison for Bieber, especially as an individual who has split the opinions of baseball fans and analysts over the last few seasons. Bieber obviously has a third pitch (his curve), compared to Corbin and his fastball/slider combo, but I think Corbin is the same mould of pitcher.
So, is Bieber elite?
There is a simple answer here … yes. The more complex version is if you believe Patrick Corbin is elite, then you should think Shane Bieber is. And if you don’t, then we have a different discussion to go through.
What to expect for 2020?
Bieber is a genuine front runner for the AL Cy Young award, if he gets a bit of regression on the hard hits and works out of the zone a bit more like Corbin, he could be one of the best, if not the best. Which is great news for Cleveland fans.
Russell is Batflips and Nerds’ resident analytical genius, and arguably Europe’s finest sabermetrician. If you’re not following Russell on Twitter @REassom then you’re doing baseball wrong.