James Shields In a New Ballpark (And Division)

The short version of the old book on James Shields that he was a flyball and strikeout guy with a home run problem. That version of James Shields might care about leaving a home park that suppresses home runs. Except that version of James Shields doesn’t exist any more and his new home park is even friendlier.

It’s true that Shields used to give up home runs — his home runs per nine rate was higher than the league average every year but one going into 2010. A little tinkering with his pitching mix — maybe more of that cutter over recent years — and a little velocity (92.3 mph in 2012, 90.9 career), and his ground-ball rate lurched forward. Two of his three best ground-ball seasons have come over the last two seasons, and so have his two best home run rates.

It’s also true that the Rays’ home park suppresses home runs (by three percent) and that Shields had a nice home ERA (3.33) when compared to his road number (4.54). But those two things aren’t linked — Shields had a better ERA at home because he pitched better at home, and it wasn’t the park that aided him. Shields at home had better strikeout (22.1% to 19.2%), walk (5.4 to 5.9%) and ground-ball rates (45.2% to 45%), so it’s not surprising his FIP (3.37 to 4.38) followed suit. But he also allowed 9.9% of fly balls to leave the park at home over his first seven seasons, and that’s basically league average. Hard to give his home park a huge assist there.

What’s more likely the problem was that Shields was pitching in tough parks on the road. His road HR/FB was well above league average (13.9%), and that was over 674.2 innings spent in the same division. The Yankees (111 home run park factor), Orioles (109), and Blue Jays (105) are all in the top five coziest parks for home runs in the league. His new division has the White Sox (112 HR PF, worst in the league), but also the Twins (92), Indians (96), and Tigers (102) playing friendlier to Shields.

It’s tough to predict offenses for a whole division, but the added games against those teams should reduce the competition level some for Shields, too. Last year, the Orioles, Blue Jays, Yankees and Red Sox scored 2,966 runs. The Tigers, White Sox, Indians, Twins scored 2,842 runs. The weighted runs created tell the same story, too. It looks like the lineups he’ll face will play friendlier, too.

In the end, moving to a home park that suppresses home runs 5% more than your old home park can’t be a bad thing. And moving out of the division will be obviously be helpful. Few pitchers actually add velocity — Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer were the only other two starters (with more than 150 innings pitched in the last two seasons) that did so in the last two years, and they’re younger — so saying definitively that he’ll keep that gas seems folly, but he was pretty good in 2011 without all that gas, too. Most of these things seem to bode well for the pitcher going forward, so that the old story and those old home runs don’t come back.

It’s the ground-ball rate that should reduce the opportunities for the hitter to go yard, as much as any of this, so it’s the ground-ball rate that might be the number to watch in the early season. Even in new digs.

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Graphs: Baseball, Roto, Beer, brats (OK, no graphs for that...yet), repeat. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris.

7 Responses to “James Shields In a New Ballpark (And Division)”

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  1. jcxy says:

    Nice write-up. Curious as to your opinion about the projected K/9 pullback the BJ projection system has…which is almost 1K/9. Do you think it’s guessing that the cutter velocity uptick isn’t sustainable?

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  2. Ray says:

    Any concerns over team defense, and what role that’s played in his success with the Rays? Seems to me his defense just downgraded at least as much as any park effects/opposing offenses effects, I’d be interested to hear what you think about the Rays vs. Royals team defense.

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    • Detroit Michael says:

      +1. There was a big difference in 2012 between the % of balls in play that the Royals and Rays turned into outs, which is a pretty good initial indicator of team defense.

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      • jcxy says:

        interestingly the uzr/150 data is virtual identical for the two teams although the total WAR from last year puts the rays ahead by 20 runs. the rays don’t rate out quite as highly by uzr as I would have suspected.

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      • Stuck in a slump says:

        It’s mostly Gordon, Cain and Dyson, the only IF with a positive UZR/150 was Moustakas who was behind only Wright among qualified 3B last year. Getz was the next best IF the Royals had at -0.4 UZR/150 in just under 500 innings. Frenchy was bad, Escobar and Hosmer were down right terrible, and while Giavotella and Betancourt were cover your eyes bad in their just over 350 innings.

        For a ground ball pitcher, the Royals could be a nightmare.

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    • royalblue says:

      Boy, the Royals defense doesn’t get any respect. Gordon won a gold glove in 2011, Cain is very good defensively in CF and (although I’d rather bench him than watch him play) Francoeur has the best arm among right fielders in baseball.

      Shields will not suffer at all from having the Royals outfield behind him.

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