Former UCSB standout takes American League’s top honor for a pitcher
Former UCSB pitcher Shane Bieber wound up as a sure thing during one of the most uncertain seasons of Major League Baseball.
Bieber, a fourth-round draft pick of the Cleveland Indians just four years ago, became the first unanimous pick for the American League’s Cy Young Award since Detroit’s Justin Verlander in 2011. He got the first-place vote on all 30 ballots, the Baseball Writers Association of America announced on Wednesday.
“Honestly, it was just a great time to be able to get the season in with so much uncertainty going around the league and nation,” Bieber said. “Just being able to get that season in and be able to do what we did as a club was special.”
The regular season was reduced from 162 games to 60 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Bieber was still able to win a league-best eight games while pitching Cleveland to the American League playoffs. He won the American League’s Triple Crown of pitching by also posting the most strikeouts (122) and lowest earned run average (1.63).
Only five others besides Bieber and Verlander have been unanimous choices for the A.L. Cy Young: Johan Santana (Minnesota in 2004 and 2006), Pedro Martinez (Boston, 1999 and 2000), Roger Clemens (Boston in 1986 and Toronto in 1998), Ron Guidry (New York Yankees in 1978) and Denny McLain (Detroit in 1968).
“It means the world to me — It’s pretty incredible to join this group and be on this list,” Bieber said.
He is the second Gaucho to win the A.L. Cy Young Award. Barry Zito, a freshman All-American for UCSB in 1997, won the vote in 2002 after going 23-5 with a 2.75 ERA and 182 strikeouts for Oakland.
Bieber, watched the Cy Young announcement on the MLB.com livestream while surrounded by his parents, Kristine and Chris, girlfriend Kara Kavajecz, and other family and friends.
“I have a lot of people to thank, and most of them are in this room with me,” he said. “They’re the ones who’ve believed in me from the start. They made it all happen.
“It took a leap of faith, so to speak, being a preferred walk-on at UC Santa Barbara — having the support of my family to just get me through that. Obviously, things worked out from there.”
UCSB coach Andrew Checketts recently found an evaluation he made of Bieber when he was a junior at Laguna Hills High.
“I wrote that I really like him, that he has plus-plus command, but that he just doesn’t throw hard enough,” he said. “He was around 80-to-82 mph at the time. It was early in his junior year.
“He came to one of our camps in early winter and I still liked him. Coach (Jason) Hawkins followed him up, saw him one more time, and said, ‘We’ve got to get this guy … I know he doesn’t throw hard enough, but he’s projectable. We’ll buy him on layaway.’”
Bieber’s velocity was in the mid-80s by his senior year of high school — about 10 mph slower than his current fastball — but he was still asked to walk on at UCSB. NCAA rules restricted the Gauchos to just eight non-scholarship players.
“I think he threw one bullpen and made the team,” Checketts said. “He ended up starting for us that year, too.”
From there, Bieber said, “it just felt like we were playing with house money.”
By his sophomore year of 2015, he’d grown bigger and stronger while his ERA had shrunk to 2.24 — seventh-best in school history. He helped the Gauchos clinch one of the top seeds for the NCAA Tournament and earn hosting privileges at the Lake Elsinore Regional.
“By the end of that year, he was throwing the ball as well as anyone on the team,” Checketts said, “and that includes a guy (Dillon Tate) who was a first-round draft pick.”
Bieber’s 12 wins in 2016 — tied for the second-most in UCSB history— led the Gauchos to their first College World Series appearance. His 106 strikeouts rank seventh. He earned second-team All-America honors and was also chosen to the All-Regional Team at Vanderbilt.
He ranks among UCSB’s career leaders in several categories including strikeouts (second with 237), wins (third with 23) and ERA (fifth at 2.73).
Bieber was promoted to the Major Leagues during just his third season of pro ball, going 11-5 with a 4.55 ERA in 2018. He got former Gaucho teammate Trevor Bettencourt to teach him his curveball during that offseason and improved to 15-8 and 3.28 with 259 strikeouts in 2019.
“He does that because he’s not satisfied where he’s at,” Checketts said.
Bieber was selected to play for the American League in the 2019 All-Star Game in Cleveland and wound up winning MVP honors after striking out the side in his one inning of work.
“It was special to be able to share that moment with the people of Cleveland,” Bieber said. “There was a sense of familiarity that meant a lot to me and got me a little more comfortable than I probably could have expected in that kind of big moment.”
He still wasn’t satisfied, adding a cutter to his arsenal of pitches during the last offseason.
“I thought it would maybe get me out of some jams when I was 3-1 or 2-0, just being able to throw a fastball with a little bit of wrinkle to hopefully get a popup or a rollover,” Bieber said. “It kind of came up big for me in certain situations this year.”
Checketts marvels at how Bieber remains so even-keel while his reputation skyrockets.
“He’s really humble, and that’s really hard to do when everyone is telling you how good you are,” he said. “Some of that is the result of his good upbringing and his family and his high school coaches, and also his experience to this point.
“It’s the result of being someone who wasn’t highly recruited, and coming in as a walk-on, and having his back against the wall early in his career.”