Bieber’s Cy Young Quest Could Include Rare Pitching Triple Crown

Shane Bieber’s meteoric rise from pitching prospect just a few years ago to a bona fide Cy Young and Pitching Triple Crown candidate this season has truly been something to watch.

Bursting on the scene with a solid 11-5 showing in 20 games during his rookie season in 2018, Bieber really started to catch some eyes last year. He had a stellar first half, named to his first American League All-Star team as a replacement, then struck out the side in a stunning effort in the exhibition contest at Progressive Field that July while taking home the game’s Most Valuable Player honors, the first by an Indians player since Sandy Alomar Jr. also did it in a home contest in 1997. Bieber finished the year with a 15-8 record in 34 games, posting a 3.28 ERA and a 1.05 WHIP with 259 strikeouts in 214 1/3 innings of work. He led the league with 1.7 walks per nine innings and led all of baseball with three complete games and two shutouts.

Since his All-Star heroics a year ago, Bieber has moved from the back of the rotation to the very top of it, as the Indians dealt Trevor Bauer, Corey Kluber, and Mike Clevinger in the span of 13 months, putting Bieber in the position of being the staff ace. He has lived up to that title and then some while dealing in a manner few could have projected to have been far so dominating and deceptive.

With a weird 60-game schedule with just nine different opponents scattered across a nine and a half week timetable and coronavirus issues wreaking havoc for some clubs in the early going, there was no way to definitively gage how players were going to perform over the course of the shortened slate of action. There was also the significant layoff between the initial ramp up to the season back in February and March and the restart in July, meaning no one could accurately access just how much rust if any may have accumulated on the players affected.

Bieber had none of that rust and his results, albeit in 37% of a normal season, are nothing short of historic. It is a shame that baseball fans will not know if he would have been able to keep up this level of performance over a full 162-game schedule, as he was pitching at an incredible pace with some eye-popping “video game” numbers.

The 25-year-old third-year right-hander made his final start of the regular season on Wednesday, striking out ten batters and giving up just one unearned run in five innings in a no-decision against the Chicago White Sox, just the third time this season that he has not factored in a game’s outcome. It left him with a stellar 8-1 record for the year. He worked 77 1/3 innings, striking out an MLB-high 122 (!) in that span for a strikeout per nine inning rate of 14.2. He currently leads the league in hits per nine innings with just 5.4, buffering the slight uptick in his walk rate this season. His 1.63 ERA is tops in baseball and his 0.87 WHIP is second in the AL and third in MLB. He made ten quality starts in his dozen appearances, failing to make it to the six-inning mark just twice. He never allowed more than three runs in any one outing, suffering that conclusion just three times on the year.

The Indians were, not surprisingly, 10-2 in games that he started.

Bieber’s 3.2 bWAR is not only tops among pitchers, but is best among all players in baseball (slightly ahead of Los Angeles’ Mookie Betts) going into action on Thursday. The Cleveland pitcher grades out at a 3.2 fWAR, trailing only teammate Jose Ramirez on Fangraphs’ list with a handful of games left for Ramirez (and others) to add or subtract.

Bieber’s campaign for the Cy Young Award in the AL, which looks to be an almost unanimous case, will get a boost as he is in line to win the league’s pitching Triple Crown, something not done since 2011 and accomplished just one time in the 120-year history of the Indians franchise. Twenty-seven players have pulled off that Triple Crown, which has been “awarded” when a pitcher leads his respective league in wins, ERA, and strikeouts. When it happened last in 2011, it happened in both leagues when Detroit’s Justin Verlander led the AL and Los Angeles’ Clayton Kershaw dominated the National League.

Bieber’s numbers are even more impressive than just a possible AL Triple Crown sweep. Entering play Thursday, he leads the Majors in all three of the pitching categories required, something done only 12 other times in baseball history.

The Tribe’s ace is the only pitcher in the Majors with eight wins. Five pitchers currently sit at seven – including two in the AL in New York’s Gerrit Cole and Seattle’s Marco Gonzales. Cole earned that win on Tuesday and may not start again until the playoffs begin on Tuesday as the Yankees have already locked in a playoff berth and will be either the fourth or fifth seed with Tampa Bay claiming the division title already. Gonzales has won five straight decisions and is tentatively scheduled to start in Sunday’s season finale against Oakland, which may still be fighting over seeding at the top of the AL bracket.

Chicago’s Yu Darvish, San Diego’s Zach Davies, and Atlanta’s Max Fried each have seven wins in the senior circuit. Darvish is scheduled to pitch on Friday against the White Sox. Davies is not on the current list of probable pitchers for the Padres, but they have not announced their rotation for the weekend. Fried left his start on Wednesday for the Braves with an ankle injury. A tie for the league or MLB lead still will count for Bieber.

No one is catching Bieber in the strikeout race, barring a performance shattering all-time records. With 122 Ks, he was the first pitcher to 100 and was the only one to achieve that mark until Wednesday, when his former teammate Bauer whiffed a dozen Milwaukee Brewer hitters in a victory for the Cincinnati Reds to land exactly on 100 for the season in his final start. Bieber’s lead is 22 over Bauer and 25 over Chicago’s Lucas Giolito, who made his final start of the season against Bieber on Wednesday.

Bieber became the fastest pitcher to record 100 strikeouts in a season and did so by striking out eight or more batters in each of his first 12 starts, trailing only Randy Johnson’s streak of 15 in 2000.

His 1.63 ERA is a tenth of a point better than Bauer, who finished the year at 1.73. The next closest in the AL among qualified contenders is the White Sox’s Dallas Keuchel, who entered his start on Thursday against the Indians with a 2.09 ERA. Even if he threw a complete game shutout against the Tribe, he would finish his season with a 1.82 ERA, well short of Bieber’s mark. Milwaukee’s Corbin Burnes has a chance to take the National League’s ERA title, as he is within four-hundredths of Bauer’s 1.73 mark, but he would have to throw five shutout innings or more in his final start to drop below Bieber’s final tally.

If all things stand as is and Bieber wins the title associated with the pitching Triple Crown in the American League, it would mark just the 17th time it had happened in the junior circuit and the 39th overall individual league occurrence (also including Guy Hecker’s effort in 1884 in the American Association). Bieber would become just the 29th different pitcher ever to lead simultaneously at season’s end in all three stat categories. It would mark just the seventh time it was accomplished in the AL since Feller pulled it off in 1940, doing so with 27 wins, a 2.61 ERA, and 261 strikeouts.

If Bieber is not surpassed in the ERA race by Sunday night, he will end the year atop the Major League leaderboard in wins, strikeouts, and ERA, which would be just the 13th time on record and the first since Minnesota’s Johan Santana in 2006. Others to “win” the Majors’ pitching Triple Crown include Walter Johnson (1913 and 1918), Grover Cleveland Alexander (1915), Dazzy Vance (1924), Lefty Grove (1930 and 1931), Hal Newhouser (1945), Sandy Koufax (1963-65), and Dwight Gooden (1985).

The Pitching Triple Crown is slightly over twice as frequent of an occurrence as the more commonly discussed hitting version (batting average, home runs, and runs batted in). That feat has been met just 17 times in baseball history within an individual league, with only five of those players leading the Majors in the three statistics when all was said and done.

Photo: Ron Schwane/Getty Images

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