Cleveland Indians: The latest ace, Shane Bieber

ANAHEIM, CA - SEPTEMBER 09: Cleveland Indians pitcher Shane Bieber (57) in action during the second inning of a game against the Los Angeles Angels played on September 9, 2019 at Angel Stadium of Anaheim in Anaheim, CA. (Photo by John Cordes/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
ANAHEIM, CA - SEPTEMBER 09: Cleveland Indians pitcher Shane Bieber (57) in action during the second inning of a game against the Los Angeles Angels played on September 9, 2019 at Angel Stadium of Anaheim in Anaheim, CA. (Photo by John Cordes/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /
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The Cleveland Indians have churned out another top-flight ace: Shane Bieber.

I’ve got Bieber fever, and not for Justin. No, I’m referring to the Cleveland Indians latest ace: Shane Bieber.

Bieber is the latest in a series of Indian aces. Flashback to 2008: lefties CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee headlined the Indians’ rotation. Flashback to 2016 and Cleveland was stocked with top-of-the-rotation arms: Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and Trevor Bauer.

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Cleveland is a pitching factory. They’ve churned out countless aces over the last dozen years, and Bieber is the factory’s newest product.

2020 was supposed to be a rebuilding campaign for the Tribe. Team President Chris Antonetti dismantled the rotation, shipping Bauer to Cincinnati and Kluber to Texas. On paper, losing those two pitchers – two aces who made the Indians perennial division favorites – meant that Cleveland should regress.

But that was on paper, and this is on the field: Bieber has seamlessly supplanted Kluber as the staff ace. He mowed the Royals down on Opening Day, striking out 14 batters while throwing 6 scoreless innings. Five days later he mystified one of baseball’s most herculean lineups: the Minnesota Twins.

The Twins boast a deep lineup, with home-run-threats in nearly every spot. But Bieber zapped their power, striking out 13 in eight scoreless innings. He showed that he can dominate anybody. Sure, he can dominate the last-place Royals, but he can also shutout the home-run-slamming Twins, who crushed an MLB best 307 long balls last year.

He bamboozled former MVP Josh Donaldson, striking him out three times – and his humiliation of Donaldson is the epitome of what makes Bieber an excellent pitcher.

He knocked Donaldson out with his signature pitch: his knuckle-curve. First, he buckled Donaldson’s knees, starting his curve at Donaldson’s head and bending it back to the middle of the plate, freezing Donaldson in his tracks.

Next, Bieber showed another reason why he’s an ace: he’ll throw any pitch in any count. On a 3-2 count, he struck Donaldson out with a different kind of curve – a pitch that looked like a fastball out of his hand and dove into the dirt as it reached the plate. Donaldson aggressively hacked at the pitch, expecting a fastball, and by the time he swung it was too late, and he trudged back to the dugout with a look of surrender blanketing his face.

What’s interesting about Bieber is that he didn’t start out as an A-list player. He wasn’t heavily recruited. There were questions about his velocity. An old recruiting page from NCSA.com says his fastball topped out at 84 mph in high school. However, UC Santa Barbara recruited Bieber as a walk-on.

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Unlike most walk-ons, Shane Bieber walked his way into the starting rotation.

Bieber flew under the radar, but here’s the important thing: he succeeded at every level at which he played. High school, college, the minors, the majors, it didn’t matter. He dominated in every league.

In 2015, as a sophomore at UC Santa Barbara, he went 8-4 in 112.2 innings while posting a 2.24 ERA.

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The Cleveland Indians drafted Bieber in the 4th round of the 2016 draft. He rocketed through three levels of the farm system a year later, finishing with a 10-5 record a 2.86 ERA.

He debuted in 2018 with the Indians, going 11-5 with a lukewarm 4.55 ERA. But as he has done throughout his life on the mound, he elevated his performance in 2019, delivering a 3.28 ERA, whiffing 259 batters, and winning the All-Star Game MVP

Bieber is off to a red-hot start in 2020: he’s 4-0 with a sparkling 1.30 ERA and 54 strikeouts. That puts him in the same company as two Hall-of-Famers – Pedro Martinez and Nolan Ryan – tying them for the third-most strikeouts to start a season since 1906.

Here’s what makes Bieber lethal: his meticulous control. He gets ahead. He throws strike one. And once he’s ahead, he buries his curveball in the dirt like a treasure chest. He’s got a cool sense of confidence. He’s poised and grounded. And he’s deliberate with his pitches. He knows exactly what he wants to throw and where, and he executes.

If you think about the best pitchers in today’s game, who comes to mind? Jacob deGrom? Max Scherzer? Gerrit Cole?

Next time you consider that list, include Shane Bieber. He deserves to be in that discussion. He’s one of the best pitchers in baseball.

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And he’s Cleveland’s latest ace.