The Cleveland Guardians have started the season in a solid manner, notching a 7-5 record to date that has them sitting at the top of the American League Central. Far more impressively, the Guardians will enter play on Friday with a plus-25 run differential, the best in the AL and the third best in the majors overall, behind only the Los Angeles Dodgers (plus-32) and the New York Mets (plus-30).
The Guardians can credit their good play to a variety of sources. They've received more production from the likes of Steven Kwan, Oscar Mercado, and Owen Miller than could've been reasonably expected, and their household names -- José Ramírez, Zach Plesac, and Shane Bieber -- have each stormed out of the block with conviction.
That's a good thing, particularly in Bieber's case, because if he or the Guardians started poorly, there would be far more attention paid to his missing velocity.
Bieber, who is expected to make his next start on Monday against the Los Angeles Angels, has posted a 2.25 ERA and a 5.33 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his first three outings. He's had that success despite his average fastball clocking in at 90.6 mph, more than two ticks below last year's norm. Put another way, Bieber's hottest heater so far (92.2 mph) would represent the lowest seasonal average of his career.
Clearly, Bieber's diminished velocity hasn't yet impacted his performance. It's anyone's guess as to if or when that will change, but CBS Sports has identified two strategic shifts made by Bieber that may continue to help him offset his lost gas.
1. Throwing more sliders
Predictably, Bieber has adjusted to throwing softer in part by changing his pitch mix, including tinkering with how often he throws his fastball. His experimentation just hasn't followed the path you would expect. Rather than lean away from the fastball, Bieber has emphasized it more. His usage rate is just shy of 40 percent, which would represent his highest mark since 2019 should it stick for the duration of the season.
For our money, the biggest difference in Bieber's approach to date has been his slider. He's thrown it around 37 percent of the time, a notable development given he's never even topped 30 percent before this season. Bieber has relegated his curveball and all but scrapped his changeup en route to streamlining his arsenal.
There's always a risk of overexposing a pitch and reducing its effectiveness by increasing the frequency with which hitters see it. So far, there's no sign of that being the case here. Bieber's slider is inducing chases at a higher clip (49 percent) than it has in the past, and it has continued to generate whiffs on more than 40 percent of the swings taken against it. Of course, those figures come in small samples and should be treated as descriptive (what has happened), not predictive (what will happen).
Still, Bieber's new two-pitch attack has worked thus far. As has another notable change he's made to his game.
2. Locating fastball away
You wouldn't know that Bieber's fastball has lost oomph based on his usage rate. You might not know it based on where he's throwing it, either.
Bieber, always known for peppering the zone with his heater, has shifted his target both horizontally and vertically. According to TruMedia's data, he's throwing his fastball both on the outer half (60 percent versus 52 percent) as well as in the upper half (77 percent versus 69 percent) of the zone more often than last year.
Bieber's fastball results -- again, in a very small sample -- aren't as universally glowing as those of his slider. He's allowed just a .538 OPS on his fastball (it was .830 last season), but he's generating fewer whiffs and fewer chases. In other words, it's to be seen if the topline results are more indicative than the underlying indicators.
If it does turn out that Bieber can remain an ace-level pitcher despite losing several ticks off his fastball, he can attribute the credit to his slider, his location, and even his fastball's movement profile. Even though he's lost heat, he's retained the ability to impart backspin on the baseball. Bieber is generating more than 18 inches of induced vertical break on his heater, ranking him ninth out of 59 qualifying starters. (His spin efficiency, meanwhile, is 97 percent; same as it was in 2021.)
Whenever a pitcher loses zip the way Bieber has, there's going to be concern that he's dealing with an injury. It stands to reason that the Guardians are aware of his radar gun readings, and that they've checked in with him to make sure he's feeling fine. Given his results, you can understand why they might be taking him at his word, even if he'll have to continue to prove he's able to flourish at lower speeds.