UPDATE: This story was updated on April 1 after it was announced that Shane Bieber is no longer scheduled to start against the White Sox on April 3.
When former UCSB Gaucho Shane Bieber takes the mound this season for the Cleveland Indians, he’ll do so as one of the most promising young pitchers in Major League Baseball.
It’s a remarkable success story considering that when he arrived at UCSB as a freshman less than six years ago, the lanky right-hander wasn’t even guaranteed a spot on the team.
“I came in really underweight and really [having] a tough shot at making the team, so I had to learn a lot really quickly,” Bieber recalled after a recent Spring Training appearance against the Dodgers in Arizona.
As a junior at Laguna Hills High School, Bieber was only reaching the mid-80s on the radar gun and didn’t attract much interest from Division 1 programs. But the UCSB coaching staff saw potential.
“He threw so many strikes and the command was so good that we wanted to get him into the program,” said Gauchos head coach Andrew Checketts.
Without any scholarship money remaining at the time, Checketts could only offer him a place as a recruited walk-on. Needless to say, it worked out pretty nicely.
By his sophomore year, Bieber had upped his velocity and secured a scholarship and a starting role. By his junior year, Bieber had developed into one of the best pitchers in college baseball and led the Gauchos to the first College World Series berth in school history. During his sophomore and junior years at UCSB, Bieber held a 2.54 ERA over 247 1/3 innings pitched.
The results caught the attention of Cleveland, which selected Bieber in the fourth round of the 2016 draft. A rapid ascension through the minor leagues followed, culminating with his MLB debut last season on his 23rd birthday.
At the end of the season he finished his rookie campaign with 118 strikeouts in 114 innings and an 11-5 record. His walk rate was 13th among pitchers with at least 110 innings pitched.
“His command is special,” Checketts said. “He was the guy that you can blindfold and spin around three times and he’d still throw strikes.”
The performance earned Bieber a spot in a rotation that many consider the best in baseball, featuring Cy Young winner Corey Kluber, all-stars Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer, and Mike Clevinger.
Bieber says he’s been working on his changeup during spring training to use with his fastball, curve, and slider.
“It’s something that I’m excited to be able to use more this year,” Bieber said. “It’s playing a little better than it has in the past, so just being able to use it in different situations will be big.”
If spring training is any indication, the expanded pitch mix is working. In 24 innings, Bieber has 29 strikeouts with an ERA of 2.25 and WHIP of 0.75. Bieber’s next start was originally scheduled for Wednesday, April 3, against the White Sox, but the Indians opted to skip his first turn in the rotation.
“I’m still figuring some stuff out but getting better as the spring goes on and games go on. Happy with where I’m at right now moving forward,” he said.
Bieber has kept Santa Barbara close since getting drafted. He spent this winter training in Summerland with former teammates JJ Muno, Kyle Nelson, and Alex Garcia.
“(We) had a really good setup,” Bieber said. “Obviously it’s a tough place to leave. It’s an amazing place during the offseason.”
Now that he’s back to work, he follows the Gauchos through social media. Their recent 12-game win streak and top-10 RPI brought a smile to his face.
“A couple years ago when I first got drafted, you’re still in touch with a lot of guys, but as the younger crop comes in, I’m not as well in touch … so I just follow them on social media and pull for them behind the scenes,” Bieber said.
Besides Bieber, there was a slew of Santa Barbara–connected athletes competing in spring training.
Zack Zehner, who played a year at Santa Barbara City College before transferring to Cal Poly, has batted .385 in Spring Training with the Yankees and is on the verge of his Major League debut.
Nelson, Bieber’s aforementioned offseason roommate, is also in the Indians organization and had a strong summer last year in the minors. The pitcher projects to start the year at the Single-A level.
Andrew Vasquez, who completed a local trifecta by playing for the Gauchos, the Westmont Warriors, and the Santa Barbara Foresters, made his major-league debut last summer with the Minnesota Twins as a reliever. The 25-year-old southpaw threw five scoreless innings this spring but was optioned to Triple-A, where he’ll wait for a midseason call-up.
Other Gauchos who could make MLB appearances this season are all pitchers: Trevor Bettencourt (Philadelphia Phillies), Dillon Tate (Baltimore Orioles), and Greg Mahle (Los Angeles Angels).
James McCann, a Dos Pueblos High graduate, signed a free agent deal in the offseason to become the new primary catcher for the Chicago White Sox after serving in the same role for the Detroit Tigers for the past four seasons. McCann has had a strong spring so far, batting .289 and displaying his typical strong defense.
Another local prep product, pitcher Kevin Gowdy (Santa Barbara High), is the No. 24-ranked prospect in the Philadelphia Phillies’ MLB Pipeline.
Former Foresters expected to have significant roles with major-league teams are Jeff McNeil (INF) with the New York Mets, Ryan O’Hearn (1B) with the Kansas City Royals, and Jordy Mercer (SS) with the Detroit Tigers.