The right-hander was completely dominant en route to his first American League Cy Young Award, finishing last season with a 1.63 ERA and 14.20 strikeouts per nine innings.
This year, he has made nine starts and currently shows an ERA of 3.17 in 59.2 innings: very good, but not quite his 2020 level.
Bieber remains one of the very best arms in the American League and MLB in general, and his curveball is still a thing of beauty.
Shane Bieber is out here breaking ankles with that curveball. pic.twitter.com/ZItu2YEktg
— Patrick Sheehan (@PatrckTweetrson) July 30, 2020
But is he the absolute best?
Elite, Yes; The Best, No
The short answer is no.
Bieber isn’t the best pitcher in MLB right now mainly because other hurlers have been more consistent and dominant than him in the early going, and because his numbers are a bit lacking compared to those of 2020.
Bieber appears to have taken advantage of a velocity bump in his fastball last year.
In 2018 and 2019, he averaged 93.2 mph on his heater, but last year, the number rose to 94.1.
You would be amazed about how much difference a mile per hour can do to a hitter’s reaction time.
This year, though, Bieber is averaging 93.1 mph, right in line with 2018 and 2019.
It would seem, based on the evidence at hand, that the 2020 fastball velocity was the outlier.
If that is indeed the case, there is no reason for Indians’ fans to worry, as he is still awesome.
Another thing to consider is that other pitchers are entering the true elite.
What Do The Numbers Say?
Among qualified starters, Bieber is still tops in the American League in strikeouts per nine innings, with 13.88, which is the second-best mark in MLB behind deGrom’s 14.63.
However, Bieber is eighth in Wins Above Replacement (WAR) with 1.6, already far behind Cole’s amazing 2.6 mark with the Yankees.
That means at least seven pitchers with a similar workload have been more valuable than Bieber so far in 2021.
Bieber has been a bit wild in 2021, at least compared to the lofty standards he set last season.
He has given 3.32 walks per nine innings, almost a full base on balls more than last year’s 2.44.
In we judge him by ERA, Bieber is 30th among qualified pitchers, which is not precisely elite.
Of course, ERA is not the best indicator to judge a pitcher’s performance, but it’s clear that from a pure run-prevention standpoint, Bieber shouldn’t be considered the best pitcher in Major League Baseball, at least not until he can control his walks and home runs (he is allowing 1.06 per nine frames after finishing 2020 with 0.81).
Shane Bieber saw two great streaks end yesterday — and not by much! His 40-game streak with 5-plus innings and record 20-game streak with 8-plus K’s are over. (he had 4 2/3 innings and 7 K’s) #QuickPitch @MLBNetwork
— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) May 17, 2021
Bieber is a fantastic pitcher, perhaps top-five in MLB with all things considered (bat-missing ability, command, stamina, stuff, and others).
However, he is not in the same league as Cole and deGrom (and perhaps a few others) right now.
After all, he showed in his last start that he is, indeed, human.