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Joe Musgrove
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Digging In

Finding the next Shane Bieber

by Nathan Grimm
Updated On: July 22, 2019, 12:58 am ET

One of the fascinating things about baseball is that it's a game of constant evolution.

That's true at the organizational level -- a heavier reliance on infield shifts and the prevalence of the opener/bulk reliever strategy are just two recent examples -- but also on an individual level. Sure, football players can work to make themselves bigger faster stronger, but at the end of the day they're still lining up across from a guy and trying to win their one-on-one matchup.

In baseball, players make adjustments all the time that can drastically affect their one-on-one matchups going forward. Pitchers learn new pitches. Hitters make swing changes. How the other adjusts to his opponent's strategical decisions has a hand in the outcome of their showdowns.

One such example in recent memory is the case of Shane Bieber. Bieber had some success as a rookie in 2018, posting a 4.55 ERA and 1.33 WHIP in 114 2/3 innings of work, but it was clear that there was something about his game that needed tweaking. That change, he decided, should be a concerted effort to throw fewer strikes.

It's hard to argue with the results. In 2018, the 24-year-old was in the zone 48 percent of the time according to Fangraphs, a rate that he's cut to 38.4 percent -- a difference of nearly 10 percentage points -- this year. In throwing fewer strikes, Bieber has upped his opponents' willingness to chase and has drastically improved both his strikeout rate and the traditional measures of success like earned run average. It's no wonder the guy was the MVP of this month's All-Star Game.

What can we learn from his results? That throwing strikes isn't always a good thing if they're not effective. Sometimes, sprinkling in some pitches outside of the zone is a recipe for success.

With that in mind, here are a few guys who might be able to take a similar-type leap if they gave up a little more often.

German Marquez

Marquez is no stranger to pitching well. The right-hander had a tremendous second half in 2018 and has been very good on the road this year as well, owning a 3.33 ERA in 10 road starts. It's the 7.07 ERA in 11 starts at Coors Field that has sunk his overall ERA to 5.12, but along with the hitter-friendly home park, Marquez has also been sabotaged by an unwillingness to issue walks. One of the most drastic changes Bieber made year over year was his line in three-ball counts: in 2018, opponents hit .317/.563/.707 in counts with three balls; this year, that mark is .167/.432/.283. Similarly, Marquez is sporting a .280/.538/.560 line in three-ball counts this year, suggesting he's too often throwing fat pitches in an attempt to avoid walking a batter. That's resulted in too many bad results for a guy with as much talent as the 24-year-old Marquez, who's seen the fruits of throwing fewer strikes -- in the midst of his successful 2018, batters hit .241/.553/.422 against Marquez in three-ball counts. If he can give in less, and give up more, it would yield better results for the budding ace.

Michael Pineda

The book on Pineda has long been the same -- terrific stuff, a lot of strikeouts, but too many homers. That's true again in 2019, as the 30-year-old has an 87/16 K/BB ratio in 98 2/3 innings, but he's served up 16 homers, or 1.46 homers per nine innings. Also part of Pineda's problem: he lives in the zone, maybe too much. Among qualified starters, Pineda is eighth in the league in zone percentage per Fangraphs, throwing a pitch inside the zone 46.4 percent of the time. With three balls that's been disastrous, with opposing hitters batting .343/.549/.686 this year. The fact that he's working his way back from multiple injuries, including Tommy John surgery in 2017 that cost him the entire 2018 season, doesn't help, either. As he tries to round into form and regain some velocity and prior effectiveness, he would do well to avoid meatballs to hitters in favorable counts.

Joe Musgrove

Musgrove has the talent to be a front-end starter in the league, and he has been at points. That's borne out in the numbers -- Musgrove carried a 3.59 FIP in 2018, and has a 3.70 FIP this season. But his ERAs of 4.06 and 4.08, respectively, say there's a gap between how good his results should be and how good they have been to this point. While three-ball counts haven't been friendly to Musgrove this year -- opponents are hitting .333/.600/.500 in 70 plate appearances -- his bigger issue has been the first pitch of an at-bat. The 26-year-old has terrific command, and throws a first-pitch strike 63.9 percent of the time (it was a remarkable 68.3 percent in 2018). The problem, then, is that too often hitters are looking for it and connect, with batters hitting .400/.414/.655 when swinging at that first pitch. He's got the stuff to make hitters chase -- his 31.2 percent chase percentage is above the league average of 28.2 percent, according to Baseball Savant -- and he needs to be more creative in choosing when to do it. If he mixes things up a little more, his ERAs should look a lot more like those shiny FIPs in the future.

Miles Mikolas

Pitchers thrive by pitching ahead in the count. That's indisputable, but getting ahead isn't easy, especially for guys who lack the swing-and-miss ability of high-end pitchers. Mikolas fits into that category, and one of the biggest issues behind his 4.17 ERA and 1.23 WHIP -- after an eye-opening return to MLB in 2018 in which he posted a 2.83 ERA and 1.07 WHIP -- has been his attempts at getting ahead. This year, opposing batters are hitting .403/.406/.806 with six homers in 65 plate appearances when swinging at the first pitch. Batters did have similar success against the 30-year-old when offering at the first pitch during his breakout 2018, hitting .394/.396/.556, but the issue has been exacerbated this year. For a pitcher who throws as many first-pitch strikes as Mikolas -- 70.8 percent last year, and 65.7 percent this year -- that's a problem. He does get hitters to chase at a percentage above the league average, so it's not as though he is completely devoid of plus stuff, and perhaps some of his low strikeout numbers are the result of an attempt to pitch to weak contact instead of going for K's. At any rate, dabbling on the edges a little more, and making a living in the strike zone early in the at-bat a little less, might be worth considering as he tries to right the ship.

Pablo Lopez

Lopez is currently on the injured list with a right shoulder strain, but when healthy he's been plagued by the same issues as his peers on this list. In the first pitch of the at-bat, opponents are hitting .385/.429/.615; with three balls, they're hitting .270/.509/.622. Like his peers, those poor outcomes seem to stem from an unwillingness to issue a walk -- he's walked just 5.7 percent of batters faced this year, well below the league average of 8.5 percent. Of course, one bad start in mid-May in which he gave up 10 runs to the Mets in three innings of work has also contributed to his 4.23 ERA through 14 starts; with that start removed, he's got a 3.17 ERA in his other 13 starts. The right shoulder injury could throw a wrench into his performance the rest of this season, and there's currently not a solid timetable for his return -- he only recently began throwing again, with an August return the best-case scenario -- but when he does, being less predictable in predictable counts would be to his benefit.

Matthew Boyd

To ask more of Boyd this year would be selfish -- he's been one of the league's most-improved pitchers, in the midst of a breakout 2019 campaign that puts him squarely on the fantasy map for years to come. If there's been one thing keeping him from even higher heights this year, though, it's been a propensity to serve up dingers. Boyd has given up 21 homers in 20 starts, inflating his ERA to 4.13 despite a 3.56 FIP and even-better 3.37 xFIP. Even if some of those homers are mistakes, Boyd has good enough control -- he's regularly around the top of the league with his zone percentage, and is walking just 4.8 percent of batters faced this year -- that those mistakes can be made on the margins, likely with more success. That he's upped his out-of-zone swing percentage this year while greatly reducing the rate at which opposing hitters make contact speaks to his ability to generate swings and misses outside of the zone. It also suggests he's cognizant of the problem, and made changes to his approach this year that have paid off. If he takes it even one step further, the sky might be the limit for the talented 28-year-old.