Shane Bieber knew he had to find a way to improve his changeup over the offseason. He was being beaten up by left-handed hitters and he was being beaten up the third time through the order.
It was proving to be the key difference between Bieber reaching the same level as the Indians' fearsome foursome in the rotation and his remaining simply a nice option in the No. 5 spot.
So that changeup was Bieber's No. 1 focus this offseason. He said during spring training he tweaked his grip and how he applied pressure along the seams, which altered how the ball initially came out of his hand and the amount of movement he could generate. The pitch needed to move away from lefties and be more effective. He had "a" changeup last year, just not a particularly effective one.
According to Brooks Baseball, Bieber thew his changeup only 3.88 percent of the time last season, and hitters posted a .357 average against it. It was essentially just a throwaway pitch. He needed it to be a real weapon to be able to attack lefties and pitch deeper into games.
His first start came against the Toronto Blue Jays and one of the weaker lineups in baseball. He didn't even use it that night. He used it twice in his season-opening outing in Minnesota, when he pitched two innings in relief. But, for the most part, his start Thursday in Detroit acted as its debut.
Bieber threw his changeup nine times with positive results: he used it to put away Miguel Cabrera in the fourth inning and didn't have any hard contact against it all day.
The Tigers lineup had only two lefties (actually switch-hitters), but the bigger effect of the changeup might have been with how Bieber pitched the third time through the order after he had held the Tigers hitless the first time through and then allowed three hits the second time. The crucial third time? Zero hits, and the only batter to reach base did so on an error by Brad Miller.
"It was nice to see, because obviously I struggled with that a little bit last year," Bieber said after pitching seven scoreless innings in the Indians' 4-0 win. "There were some outings I was able to get through the lineup three or four times, it may have been last year, but like I said, I notoriously struggled with that a little bit last year. So having that changeup to rely on, throwing it to both the lefties and righties, an extra pitch to make them [be] aware about, it'll go a long way. That was nice today."
Bieber has allowed three earned runs on seven hits with 17 strikeouts in 15 innings. The Indians rotation — even with the sizable loss of Mike Clevinger for the next couple months — has the potential to be one of the best units in recent memory, and some of that potential rests with Bieber, and how he can raise his own ceiling.
So far, he's on his way to giving the Indians the kind of fifth starter that teams for the most part only dream about. Still, a long road awaits and the sample sizes being used are still pretty small.
In spring training, Indians manager Terry Francona was asked how excited he was to see Bieber for an entire season. Francona smiled and said, "I'm looking forward to seeing him over entire seasons," while putting extra emphasis on the last letter.
"I thought he was terrific," Francona said Thursday. "You’re playing, basically, against the Tigers and the elements. And they’re doing the same thing. He got behind a number of times, but he’d fight his way back into the count and I think he only walked one. He just pitches beyond his years. That’s the best way to put it. He just looks like a veteran out there."
And, most importantly, Bieber finally won the King of the Hill award, presented to the starting pitcher who was the best during that series. Trevor Bauer was motioning to the crown and joking with him to, "Put it on, Rook" as Bieber was about to speak with reporters.
Bieber joked, "Don't work that way. I'm the king now." And when asked by reporters if Bieber would wear the crown on the plane to Kansas City, he smiled and said, "Absolutely."
Ryan Lewis can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Indians blog at www.ohio.com/indians. Follow him on Twitter at @ByRyanLewis.