After getting trounced across 17 innings of Saturday baseball but somehow finding a way into earning a doubleheader split all the same, the Braves are back at it again on Sunday night, with a real chance to grab a series win and climb above the .500 mark once again. They’ll have Max Fried on the hill as they attempt to do so; they’ll have to get past Shane Bieber to have a chance.
Fried will be making his fourth start of 2019, and have the chance to reverse a trend where each of his starts has been somewhat worse than the last. His first turn in the rotation saw him hurl six one-hit innings with a 5/0 K/BB ratio, in which hitters hit it on the ground nearly 80 percent of the time. After that, he threw six innings of one-run ball at Coors Field (none earned), allowing just five baserunners with a 4/1 K/BB ratio, though the grounder rate fell to half. In his most recent outing, he allowed two runs in six frames to the Diamondbacks with a 3/1 K/BB ratio, and a grounder rate of 48 percent. On the plus side, his whiff rate has actually increased in each start despite the declining strikeouts, so there’s no reason to figure that somehow his time has run out or anything like that. The Indians’ offensive struggles have been manifest against both right-handed and left-handed pitching, though you wouldn’t necessarily know it from the first two games of this series. A bunch of righties didn’t quite work out for the Braves; perhaps Fried can give Atlanta some good innings to start the game in contrast to the performances of Julio Teheran and Touki Toussaint.
Opposing Fried will be ZiPS darling Shane Bieber, a 23-year-old right-hander with a very atypical profile for a pitching prospect. Unlike most youngsters that dominate the minor leagues as they climb the latter, Bieber’s main calling card has been his command, and his highest walk rate at any stop was a minuscule 3.4 percent in Triple-A last year before he made his major league debut. Bieber has correspondingly not gotten too high of grades on his “stuff,” but honestly, that concern seems to always have been overblown, as he’s still managed strikeout rates around 25 percent at every level and his fastball appears to have good spin efficiency, generating more “rise” (i.e., less downward drop) than expected given its average velocity. One thing to watch for if you’ve never seen it will be Bieber’s “slider,” which is really more of a harder 12-6 breaking pitch rather than something that actually “slides” horizontally across the zone. His curveball, meanwhile, is tight and snappy, which can be a headache for hitters as it forces them to fend off multiple unorthodox breaking pitches. Bieber largely goes fastball-slider against righties, but lefties have to contend with his entire four-pitch mix, which includes a changeup. (While not really very accurate at all, I kind of like to think of Bieber here as Dark Mike Soroka, not because of similarities everywhere, but mostly because they’re both guys who trashed the minors without always-gaudy strikeout rates, though Soroka is more of a walks/strikeouts guy than Bieber is.)
Shane Bieber was really good last year, though the usual baseball-type variance (low strand rate, high BABIP) led to an underwhelming ERA compared to his peripherals. His pitching triple-slash was 4.55 / 3.23 / 3.30, which is 102/76/78 on a minus basis. His 2.9 fWAR as a starter was 31st-most in baseball, despite the fact that he made only 19 starts and pitched just 110 innings. The pendulum has swung back the other way for Bieber this year (high strand rate, low BABIP), leading to a 1.72 / 2.62 / 3.99 (or 37/59/90) pitching triple-slash in three starts and a two-inning relief appearance so far this year. His starts to date have gone as follows:
- Six innings, two runs (one homer), 9/2 K/BB ratio against the Blue Jays;
- Seven scoreless innings, 6/1 K/BB ratio in Detroit; and
- Six innings, one run (zero homers), 5/3 K/BB ratio in Seattle.
Cleveland won each of those games.
Two possible trends to watch against the right-hander is whether he continues to fish outside the zone — Bieber had a top-10 zone rate last year and a bottom-fifth one so far this year — and whether he continues to ramp up usage of his not-too-devastating fastball. If either or both of those trends stay true, Atlanta batters may be able to capitalize by waiting him out or punishing his fastball without having to contend with his harder-to-handle breaking pitches.
Atlanta Braves @ Cleveland Indians
Sunday, April 21, 2019
7:05 p.m. EDT
Progressive Field, Cleveland, OH
TV: ESPN (ugh/sigh)
Radio: 680 AM/93.7 FM The Fan, Rock 100.5, Braves Radio Network, La Mejor 1600/1460/1130 AM, SXM 178 (Streaming 847).