In 2014, Shane Bieber wasn’t considered good enough to earn a scholarship at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He instead earned a spot as a walk-on. His fastball sat in the mid-80s. He had strong command, but didn’t strike out many.
Six years later, Bieber of the Cleveland Indians was named the unanimous winner of the American League Cy Young Award for the truncated 2020 Major League Baseball season. From start to finish in the 60-game regular season, he was by far the best pitcher in baseball. He either led or tied for the major league lead in many statistical categories, such as earned run average (1.63), wins (eight), strikeouts (122) and wins above replacement (3.3).
Not far behind on many of those lists was Bieber’s former Indians teammate Trevor Bauer, who won the National League Cy Young Award, also on Wednesday. Now documenting his free agency on social media, Bauer went 5-4 with a 1.73 E.R.A. and 100 strikeouts for the Cincinnati Reds during the regular season, and earned 27 of the 30 possible first-place votes from the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. He is the first Reds pitcher to win the award.
The three other first-place votes in the N.L. went to Yu Darvish of the Chicago Cubs, who finished second. Jacob deGrom, the Mets’ ace who claimed the award in 2018 and 2019, finished third. Bieber, the A.L.‘s first unanimous winner since Justin Verlander in 2011, bested Minnesota’s Kenta Maeda and Toronto’s Hyun-jin Ryu, two former Los Angeles Dodgers in their first year with new teams.
In a way, the victories by Bauer and Bieber, both right-handed starters and first-time winners, underscored the work of the smaller-market Indians’ envied pitching development factory.
During the 2018 and 2019 seasons, Cleveland counted Bauer, Bieber and the two-time A.L. Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber — plus standouts like Mike Clevinger and Carlos Carrasco — among its starters. The Indians traded away Bauer, Clevinger and Kluber in a span of 13 months, and still reached the playoffs this year. But they have not won the World Series since 1948, the majors’ longest active stretch of futility.
Bieber, who eventually earned a scholarship and starred for his college team, was selected by Cleveland in the fourth round of the 2016 draft. Unlike Bauer, 29, who has thrown hard since high school, Bieber, 25, added velocity over time.
In the Indians’ farm system, Bieber tweaked his repertoire and blossomed. He vexed batters last season with his pinpoint command and dizzying array of pitches. He threw his mid-90s fastball only 38 percent of the time, one of the lowest rates in the major leagues among starting pitchers, because he expertly mixed it with sliders, cutters, curveballs and changeups.
Bieber’s biggest blemish of the year: He allowed seven runs in his lone playoff start, a loss to the Yankees in the first round of this year’s expanded postseason. The vote for the Cy Young Award, though, is taken before the playoffs. (The New York Times does not permit its reporters to vote for awards.)
Following a trend across baseball over the years, Bieber set a major league record this year by striking out 14.2 batters per nine innings. He did that, however, over only 77⅓ innings. The previous record-holder was Gerrit Cole, now with the Yankees, whose strikeout rate of 13.8 per nine innings was accomplished over 212⅓ innings in 2019 with the Houston Astros.
Continuing a steady upward trend, Bauer finished third in strikeout rate (a career-high 12.3 per nine innings) last season behind Bieber and deGrom.
Cleveland traded for Bauer — an Arizona Diamondbacks first-round pick out of U.C.L.A. — before the 2013 season. Known for his brash personality and his mad scientist approach to pitching, Bauer went from an average starter to an excellent one in Cleveland. He used high-speed cameras, weighted-ball training, long toss and precision pitch design before they became ubiquitous in modern pitching training.
If not for a stress facture in his leg caused by a comebacker in 2018, Bauer could have been in contention to win the A.L. Cy Young that year. He missed six weeks and returned to finish with a 2.21 E.R.A., third best in the majors, and sixth in voting for the award.
Traded to the Reds in July 2019, Bauer posted his best all-around season this year, albeit in a pandemic-shortened campaign in which he tossed 73 innings. He led the N.L. in E.R.A., walks and hits per inning pitched (0.795) and shutouts (two). His slider was one of the most difficult ones to hit in the majors: Opponents posted a .075 batting average against it.
Bauer was also dominant in his only postseason start: He struck out 12 over seven and two-thirds scoreless innings in a loss to the Atlanta Braves in the Reds’ first-round exit.
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