For the second straight game, James Shields was able to finish what he started. Following a four-hit, one-run complete game victory against the Chicago White Sox earlier in the week, Shields threw a four-hit shutout of the Toronto Blue Jays on Sunday. In his second complete game, he used just 95 pitches to get the required 27 outs.
On the surface, James Shields had a bad season in 2010. His 5.18 ERA was the highest single-season mark of his career and he showed up in the loss column on 15 different occasions. Meanwhile, beneath the surface it might have been his best performance to date. His xFIP of 3.55 was the seventh best in the American League among starting pitchers (min. 180 innings).
Although he does not having the most in terms of pure stuff or velocity, Shields struck out 8.28 batters per nine innings last season. In addition to the stellar strikeout rate, he continued to show great control with a BB/9 of 2.26. While Shields was great when the balls missed the bat, he struggled on balls in play.
Despite pitching in a rotation that had four regular starters with BABIP under .275, Shields carried a .342 during the 2010 season. Not only did he get hit around the ball park, but allowed 34 balls to leave it. Mike Podhorzer noted that because of all the extra batters faced due to hits allowed; perhaps Shields’ K/9 was a bit deceptive.
Some in the Tampa Bay area were ready to give up on Shields after one bad season (following three pretty good ones). However, Joe Maddon, Andrew Friedman, and followers of the process remained confident in his abilities. Although he tends to be over the league average BABIP mark, a .342 BABIP was simply unrepeatable; especially when you consider the defense that plays behind him. As shown in his xFIP, Shields was bit by the home run bug a bit too hard. Once again, Shields is usually above the league average in home runs allowed, but his talent is not that of a pitcher with a 13.8% HR/FB rate.
On the other hand, bad luck alone did not contribute to the poor results of Shields’ 2010 season. There were also some problems with pitch selection and usage. Shields does not have a good fastball. In fact, his fastball rated as the worst of its kind according to pitch values. Yet for some reason, he decided to throw it more frequently that he did in the previous two seasons. Far too often, he left that fastball over the plate which led to some hard hit balls.
Thus far, the results from Shields in 2011 have been fantastic. He has allowed 10 earned runs in 38.1 innings over five starts. He has 27 strikeouts and just eight walks. In four of his five starts he has not allowed a home run; however, in one chilly start at U.S. Cellular Field he gave up three.
The early results are nice, but are probably a bit over his head. The strong K/BB rate is likely to continue, but he is now the benefactor of a lower than usual BABIP of .236 . While his HR/FB rate is not fluk-ishly low (7.0%), he will give up more bombs at some point. Though the results may regress, perhaps a change in pitch usage will help offset some of that regression.
Shields still throws his fastball and cutter, however, he is leaning heavily on his off-speed pitch and breaking ball. He is throwing his changeup nearly 30% of the time and has increased the usage of his curveball by more than 6% so far. This is a welcomed sight since both have rated as above-average pitches throughout his career. Shields is not just pumping changeups and curveballs either. He is strategically going about their usage.
On Tuesday, Shields said he was hiding his curveball during the first part of the game. Once comfortable with where he was in the lineup, he used it to register eight first-pitch strikes from the fourth inning on. On Sunday, he started the first 10 batters with a fastball. Eight of the next 12 batters saw first pitch curveballs. Esscentially, he is pitching backwards as the lineup flips over. With his fastball and curveball setting up the at-bats, Shields has used his changeup as a knock-out pitch. In his outing yesterday, he threw just 17 changeups, but seven of them recorded outs – including five for swinging strikeouts. As the season progresses, Shields will have to adapt as opposing hitters do the same. But with a few above-average options, as well as good control, he should be able to stay ahead of the advanced scouting reports.
Unfortunately, for his most staunch supporters like me, Shields pitching well in 2011 could mean an exit from Tampa Bay after the season. Like Matt Garza this offseason, Shields is becoming expensive in terms of the Rays’ limited budget ($7m club option for 2012). A good season from him could lead to a trade in the offseason to help replenish the farm system as players like Jeremy Hellickson and Desmond Jennings graduate to the major leagues. With Alex Torres, Alex Cobb, Chris Archer, and Matt Moore coming on strong, Shields could find himself as a tradable commodity with friendly contract and in-house replacements ready to take his spot.
While the future of Shields is unknown, Rays fans are certainly enjoying the present.