Is Big Game’s Game Breaking Down?

James Shields was traded this off season from the Rays to the Royals. He has been known for his durability over the years. Spanning the last two seasons, he is first in complete games with 14. Also, he is second to Justin Verlander in innings thrown. The durability and consistency he is known for may be coming to an end. At the end of the last season, he showed signs of breaking down because he was not able to throw strikes and wasn’t able to maintain a consistent release point.

Before, I get into the meat of the analysis, I need to back up a bit. After several years of wishing to recreate Josh Kalk’s injury zone work (reproduced by Kyle Boddy), I finally have a publicly available model which looks for three pitcher injury traits(link): velocity loss, low Zone% and late game inconsistencies (more detail in the Appendix). By using all three traits, a better picture of a pitcher’s health can be revealed.

Just by looking at James Shield’s velocity, which is the only trait most people use to tell if a pitcher is injured, he looked healthy. Here are his two and four-finger fastball speeds from the last 4 years:

Season FF FT
2009 90.7 89.6
2010 91.5 91.1
2011 90.9 91.0
2012 92.0 92.1

Shields fastball was faster than it was in any previous season. All seemed great.

The first sign something was wrong, was a significant drop in his Zone%. A low Zone% indicates the pitcher is having problems throwing strikes. Pitchers who have problems finding the strike zone are more injury prone. It is not known what comes first yet, an inconsistent release leads to an injury or an injury leads to an inconsistent release, but the two seem to go hand in hand. Here are his Zone%’s since entering the league (Pitchf/x values):

Season: Zone%
2007: 52%
2008: 51%
2009: 53%
2010: 51%
2011: 51%
2012: 45%

Besides the yearly values, here is a graph of his game-by-game values from the last 3 seasons with a 5 game moving average (large image).

He had a Zone% over 50% in his first 5 seasons and then in 2012 it dropped like a rock. The lack of pitches in the strike zone didn’t have an impact on his BB% which was down from 2011 (6.7% to 6.1%). The lack of throwing strikes, really hurt him in the number of innings he was able to throw. From 2011 to 2012, the number of pitches he threw went from 3576 to 3617. In the mean time his innings pitched went from 249 down to 227 while his pitchers per batter increases from 3.67 to 3.83.

The second factor, which points to Shields being hurt, was his inability to maintain a consistent late game delivery. Basically, was he not able to keep the same delivery as he wore down. Here are his game-by-game late game consistency scores over the past 3 years (a score of 100 is very inconsistent and 0 is very consistent – large image):

In 2010 and 2011, his 5 game average peaked around 40 with an average value at 29.4. In 2012, the 5 game average was over 50 through May and June with an average yearly value of 45.1.

Besides having a higher average inconsistency score, he was seeing more and more scores at or above 50. In the games where his score was less than 48, he had an 3.37 ERA (3.75 R/9), 23% K%, 5% BB%. In the games where the value was at or above 48, his ERA was 3.77 ERA (4.61 R/9), 24% K% and 8% BB%. When consistent, his results were better.

To find the cause of the inconsistencies, a little more work needs to be done. The tool determines if the player was throwing inconsistently (speed, break and release points) late in the game, but it doesn’t say in what way. The data needs to be looked at in more detail.

After looking at the data, Shields was just not able to maintain a constant release point. To show this problem, I am went back to look at his last game of the season. Normally, when a pitcher is hurt, they vary their arm height and therefore their horizontal release point as seen by Kyle Drabek‘s release point two games before he had Tommy John Surgery (his release points are at an angle).

The inconsistency with Shields was only in the horizontal direction as seen here.

Going back to the game, I looked at fastballs from the different horizontal locations. Here are four .gifs from when he faced Chris Davis and Adam Jonesin the 7th inning on 10/2/2012. Try to find the differences:

The difference is his foot placement on the rubber. In the 1st and 3rd image, his drive foot is noticeably closer to 1B. In each case he threw to the 1B side. In the other two images, his foot was in the middle of the rubber and he threw to the 3B side. Pitchers should not need to move on the rubber to throw to different sides of the plate, but Shields was needing to move.

Early in the game, he threw mostly from the middle of rubber, but as the game wore on he needed to position himself on the 1B side of the rubber to throw to the 1B side of the plate. Here is a graph showing how he eventually needed to move around to the inside and outside. The graph is his horizontal release point vs the horizontal point the ball crossed home plate (positive values mean the 1B side and negative numbers are the 3B side).

The big question which needs to be asked is why was he repositioning himself on the rubber. Was he doing it unknowingly and was tipping his pitch locations? Did it hurt him to throw to both sides of the plate with the same motion? Was the inconsistent release points a cause of the low Zone% over the course of his season? Hopefully James and the Royals will be able to figure out differences. We will be able to find out soon because the Royals spring training facility in Surprise has a Pitchf/x system installed.

The old method of just using fastball speed to see if a pitcher is injured is limited. When looking at James Shields, his fastball velocity indicated he was healthy. By additionally looking at his 2012 Zone% and Late Game Consistency, he showed signs he was inconsistent in his release and couldn’t get pitches over the plate. His problems could be the indication of an injury or the possible causes of one. He was signed by the Royals to stabilize their pitching staff, but missed time may be in store for Big Game James.

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Huge kudo’s to my brother Darrell for setting of the web page.
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Appendix

Information on the pitcher injury finder application.

• It is slow, almost painfully slow at times. With everyone possibly using it right after this article is released, it may be even slower. Right now, it takes over 1 minute to process one pitcher for just one year. If it is too slow over the next day or so, try it again when less people may be using it.

• Predicting possible injures is an imprecise science. Two pitchers could have almost identical values, but one may need Tommy John surgery and the other one wouldn’t. All I have done is make data available on traits which have been previously known to lead to injuries.

• Directions: Select a starting pitcher (tool only really works with starters because a minimum number of pitches needs to be thrown) and date range. Press submit. Next will come up a most common pitches chart for the pitcher. Pick the most common fastball (to use FA if going back to 2009). Press Submit and have a drink or take a nap because this may take a while. The results will eventually appear. 

• The first graph is pretty simple. An average velocity graph for the selected pitch with a 5 game average curve.

• The second graph measures late game consistency. A 100 value is an inconsistent pitcher and 0 value is a consistent pitcher. I got the values by looking at pitchers with major arm issues in a season and pitchers without arm issues in a season. Then, I compared one group of pitchers to the others over the last 10 fastballs thrown in each game. Velocity, release points and break were examined using logistic regression. In the end, I got a formula which detects inconsistencies. The exact cause of the inconsistent is not outputted. The user will need to go look at the game data to find the pitcher’s exact issue. Note: Pitchers, like Bruce Chen, who have two distinct release points, will have all their values near 100. I have not been able to work out this problem yet.

• The final graph is the pitcher’s Zone%. A value under 47% (baseline value on graph) means the pitcher had issues throwing strikes and is more likely to be injured.

• In the near future, I will be going back and looking at how the values can be applied to other pitchers and situations.




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Jeff writes for FanGraphs, The Hardball Times and Royals Review, as well as his own website, Baseball Heat Maps with his brother Darrell. In tandem with Bill Petti, he won the 2013 SABR Analytics Research Award for Contemporary Analysis. Follow him on Twitter @jeffwzimmerman.


52 Responses to “Is Big Game’s Game Breaking Down?”

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  1. jdbolick says:

    *slow clap*

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  2. Matt says:

    His 15k 2h complete game in his final start really backs this up, the guy was clearly running on empty on the verge if a breakdown. This is classic “let me make an assumption first, then find some evidence that supposedly supports said assumption” which btw can be done with anything. His zone % was down because he was intentionally working out of the zone more. It was strategy, he has stated this as he thought worked around the plate too much in previous years, That being said the Royals did just trade for him so he’ll probably blow out his elbow on opening day,

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    • Dayton Moore says:

      I know, right!

      That last start definitely outweighs a season worth of data. The Rays are so silly for using math like this in making decisions. I assume they must have looked at some silly stats like this before they agreed to trade Big Game. How else could I have gotten him with only having to give up unproven players like Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi?

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      • pudieron89 says:

        It’s an article about him wearing down by the end of the season and over the past few seasons, I’d consider that game a relevant part of the sample size and worthy of notice, because if degredation of his game is the thesis then a dominant, top-10-of-2012 performance is a worthy anecdotal point.

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    • El Vigilante says:

      His ‘assumption’ is a theory concerned with determining injury risks and likelihood of DL time. This theory was constructed by analyzing years of information. James Shields is an interesting test that we can all watch play out in real time. By no means is the author making an assumption first and then trying to find supporting evidence.

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    • Ben Hall says:

      This is a bizarre comment. Jeff is doing exactly the opposite of what you’re saying. Nobody would assume from his results that Shields was hurt at the end of the year. His results were great.

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      • FMG says:

        Or he could be upset over the loss of Myers, Odorizzi et al and rattled this off after seeing a decrease in zone% which is explained by pitching around his plus plus changeup.

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        • El Vigilante says:

          Yes Jeff Z. has spent countless hours building an injury database and injury risk models just to express his anger over the Myers trade. It makes too much sense.

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  3. MakeitRayn says:

    By correlating his movement on the mound with where he wanted to put a pitch, he was able to lower the flight time it took to get to its location; therefore, gave the batter less time to react to the pitch. Seems smart to me.

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    • Cool Hand says:

      But if he is tipping to get the ball in that location the time advantage is surely negated.

      Furthermore, I believe that bringing up the mound movement was to highlight not what Shields was doing but rather what he wasn’t. The author made the conclusion that Shields was overcompensating because he wasn’t healthy enough to locate the ball with a neutral mound position.

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  4. bobellis75 says:

    Is his game breaking down?

    No.

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  5. pudieron89 says:

    Have you considered that Shields throws more out of the zone because his changeup is his best pitch?

    Seems to me like you’re trying to fit your narrative of “Royals lost the Myers trade” to justify the complaining on the part of that fanbase.

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    • pudieron89 says:

      All of the metrics which you consider correlated with healthy, good pitching (Zone %, delivery pt) were “better” in 2010 when he was barely a 2.0 WAR player and “degraded” over his elite 2011 campaign and very good 2012 campaign. You’re really struggling trying to project Shields for failure in 2013.

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    • El Vigilante says:

      Jeff’s research is to find possible warning signs of pitcher injuries. This is extremely useful information. Whether Jeff’s theory is correct can be debated, but to reduce his work to being focused on a specific Shields narrative is ludicrous. James Shields provides a great example for Jeff to introduce new readers to his work.

      (And if Shields does not break down, then no you cannot automatically disqualify Jeff’s work. Just as a DL-stint does not prove him correct.)

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      • pudieron89 says:

        Is Shields the best case study he could have picked? I would be surprised.

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        • Jeff Zimmerman says:

          He was the second player I looked at. Before I got the coding completed, I could complete one by calculating each game data taking a few hours. After I ran it, I never went back and looked at why.

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        • pudieron89 says:

          I’m just saying, it might be a great model for 69% of pitchers but some models fail in extreme cases, and Shields is an atypical pitcher in that he throws his fastball less than 50% of the time, and as a % of total pitches it is trending down over the past 3 years (46.1, 36.4, 33.7), giving way to changes, curves and cutters.

          It is noteworthy that all of his pitches average velo went up last year relative to 2011 when he had better results overall. What does that mean? I don’t know.

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    • chuckb says:

      No one needs this article to explain why the Royals lost the Myers trade. The only question is “how badly did they lose the Myers trade?”.

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  6. Kiss my Go Nats says:

    Wow Royals fan are not going to like you after this article. If your right then they will hate the messenger. If you are wrong then they will hate you more for ruining what pleasure they get from the spring. Of course your likely to be right since your writing about the Royals. LOL

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    • Your Name says:

      I don’t normally do this, but three times is a bit much… YOUR is possessive, YOU’RE = you are.

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    • S. McKinney says:

      We Royals fans are smarter than you give us credit for. And Jeff is a Royals fan who writes extensively about his favorite team at royalsreview.com, where his analysis (both positive and negative) is seen as very valuable and insightful.

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  7. cass says:

    I can’t seem to find any link to the pitcher injury finder application in this article. Am I missing something?

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  8. stan says:

    I’ve been asking these same questions since that trade was made. The Royals paid an ace-like price for Shields and have been touting him as their ace but… he’s showing signs of wear, and wasn’t really an ace in the first place.

    The good news for Royals fans is that this trade should finally get Daytom Moore fired.

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  9. pft says:

    Nice work here.

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  10. l1ay says:

    Did I miss something but is there no mention of how his SIERA, FIP-, xFIP, K%, SwStr% has improved each year since 2010?

    This article is a baseless stretch and that’s being generous.

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    • El Vigilante says:

      Again, it is not a “baseless stretch”, nor a designed attack on James Shields. Jeff has done some pretty extensive research on pitcher injuries. This specific player is a great test case. If you do not agree with Jeff’s findings, I suggest you try to find holes in his theory, not one specific example.

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  11. jim says:

    shields is throwing more and pitches out of the zone because batter chase, he’s maintained a strong F-strike% for years and just posted the best SwStr% of his career. not sure i can agree with the conclusion that a decreasing zone% means he’s an injury risk

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    • jimbo says:

      Again…there were no CONCLUSIONS being drawn anywhere in that piece. Sheesh.

      We get so used to data = answers. I think many people are assuming because they see data in this article that there MUST be answers as well.

      This is groundbreaking in that the data is helping to form the right questions, and nobody knows (yet, or maybe ever) what the answers will be.

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      • jim says:

        “The first sign something was wrong, was a significant drop in his Zone%. A low Zone% indicates the pitcher is having problems throwing strikes. Pitchers who have problems finding the strike zone are more injury prone.”

        to me, this implies that, because shields is throwing fewer pitches in the zone, he’s probably hurt.

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        • El Vigilante says:

          No, it implies that he might be more likely to end up on the DL, all other things being equal. Jeff has attempted to find possible warning signs for pitcher injuries. James Shields has some of these warning signs, and thus he is someone to closely monitor.

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  12. gnomez says:

    I’d be interested in comparing other pitchers’ mound locations. Terry Mulholland immediately comes to mind as someone who regularly adjusted where he stood, both for batter handedness, and sometimes during at-bats.

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    • Jeff Zimmerman says:

      Too bad there was no Pitchf/x when Mullholland threw. Some pitchers do have different placements depending on the batters handedness. I haven’t dealt with it yet.

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  13. Trip says:

    “I don’t understand what you’re saying, but I *know* you’re wrong and completely biased.” -Half of these comments

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  14. LTG says:

    “Normally, when a pitcher is hurt, they vary their arm height and therefore their horizontal release point…”

    Should that read “vertical release point” or am I confused?

    Also, how many brothers Darrel do you have, Larry?

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  15. Matt says:

    Interesting toy to play with. Tim Lincecum’s 2012 looks better for consistency & zone % than his 2011. Though the results were obvious;y very different.

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  16. El Pibe says:

    Hey Royals fans, enjoy that broken down old war horse. Make sure you get as much as you can from the glue factory.
    Sincerely,
    “The” Rays fan

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  17. Huisj says:

    So by this analysis, guys like Orlando Hernandez and Jose Contreras would have been on the edge of catastrophic injury throughout their whole careers because they changed arm angles frequently? Granted, they did both eventually battle injuries, but that seemed to be more a factor of being old (and maybe even older than they said).

    I’m not convinced that a pitcher moving around on the rubber to pitch differently to different batters is the same thing as a drifting arm slot due to injury. Maybe you’ve gone through much more footage than this article shows, but 4 gifs isn’t enough to convince me that what he was doing was because he was or will soon be hurt.

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  18. Sandy Kazmir says:

    I had a couple of longish comments elsewhere that I think some might find useful. Below you’ll see my journey from skepticism, to doubt, to seeing some value:

    10:20:

    I’d question how predictive the decline in zone % is. Shields saw a zone% of 41.7% in 2012 (not using the Pitch F/x data he used). That’s 87% of his average zone % over 2010-11. That was the second lowest percentage for qualified starters over that time frame trailing only Josh Johnson. So, sure his zone% was lower, but does it matter?

    Bumping this back a year we can look at 2011 compared to the average of 2009-10 and then track how pitchers performed in 2012. Carl Pavano, Tim Lincecum, Derek Lowe, Aaron Harang, Zack Greinke, John Lannan, A.J. Burnett, Justin Verlander, Matt Cain, and Brad Penny all had a zone% percent decline worse than Shields’s 87%. These pitchers averaged 138.5 IP in 2012 and averaged 16.8 days on the DL, BUT 124 of the total 168 were due to Carl Pavano. A.J. Burnett spent another 26 days on the DL, but I don’t think catching a baseball with his eye socket has much to do with his zone%, and lastly Brad Penny missed 18 days for a shoulder impingement.

    You don’t need any sort of metric to predict that Carl Pavano will get hurt in a given year all you need is a coin and while Penny seems to be a positive for using zone% I think Cain, Varlander, Greinke, and even Burnett show not much value here.

    10:40:

    Going back a year further we find Dempster, Millwood, Kuroda, Wandy, Brett Myers, Lowe (again) and Livan Hernandez as equalling Shields’s rate and these guys averaged 175 innings with only Wandy hitting the DL for 21 days for elbow swelling. I think it’s pretty clear that this doesn’t really predict injuries, but much like the Verducci effect it will get enough right through coincidence that people might put stock in it. Pyrite, in my opinion.

    11:00:

    And we can expand the sample and get slightly better results. If we look at all pitchers who saw a 10% decline in their zone% for current year compared to the average of the two years prior, so 90% rate, we find 18 pitchers meeting the criteria in 2012. They collectively average 147.8 IP and 17.9 days on the DL. Correct spotting includes Shaun Marcum (71 days), Dan Haren (18 days on DL, more day to day), Doug Fister (47 days), Josh Beckett (18 days), and the aforementioned Pavano, Burnett, and Penny. Ricky Romero was also here and though he never actually went on the DL many suspect he was hiding an injury. You can throw him in with Tim Lincecum as two guys that had poor results so this may also be an indicator for poor performance on the horizon. It’s not a scarlet letter, but it could be an omen.

    Comparing 2010 to the average of 2008 – 09 and taking the qualified starters that saw a 10% decline in their zone% yields 19 guys that averaged 184.8 IP in 2011 and averaged 13.9 days on the DL. Most of that is propped up by Jon Garland missing 143 days, though it did spot Lackey, Danks, Cueto, Lester, and Wandy Rodriguez as guys at risk that did spend (substantial) time on the DL.

    In opening up the sample I think that there is something to this, but it’s hardly a death sentence as there are just as many guys that go on to be fine as there are red-flag guys that go on to get hurt. I’d imagine the control group here is rife with guys that got hurt and those that didn’t as well.

    Shields is a guy that has a chance to get hurt next year. Just like most pitchers, but as a 31 year old that has a ton of miles on the tires he’s probably got a better chance than most of missing time or going through bouts of ineffectiveness due to nagging injuries.

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  19. d_i says:

    How do you define “late game consistency” and what is the measure you cite?

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  20. Doc says:

    Could his drop in Zone% be a direct result of his increase in velocity? Maybe that effect only happens in my golf swing but when you try to throw harder, it makes sense that you would lose a little more control. I know it’s extreme but Aroldis Chapman is the perfect example of that effect. When he throws 105+, he struggles with command. When he dials it down, he can throw it where he wants it. And his Zone% did go up when his velocity went down – comparing 2011 to 2012.

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