The man formerly known as Jamie who arrived in the bigs with a meh fastball has made himself into quite the workhorse. Well, workhorse has somewhat of a negative connotation as it’s typically used to describe pitchers who throw a lot of innings, but not necessarily of high quality. James Shields‘ innings, at least over the past three seasons, have certainly been of high quality. He has given his two teams at least 227 innings a year, with an ERA ranging between 2.82 and 3.52. His 2013 performance was good enough to rank him as the 25th most valuable starting pitcher.
Pop quiz, hot shot. Who has thrown the most innings since 2011? Buzz. It’s not Shields (it’s actually Justin Verlander), but Shields does sit just two innings behind Verlander in second place with 705.2 frames thrown. In his first season with the Royals after the controversial trade that sent him to Kansas City for top prospect Wil Myers and others, Shields gave the team as much as they could have hoped for.
For all the consistency we find in his surface stats though, digging deeper reveals several warning signs. First of all, Shields will be 32 during the 2014 season, which is older than even I would have guessed and I have owned him on a lot on my fantasy teams over the years. So age-related decline should be expected even if we failed to identify any red flags in his various metrics. But we do.
His strikeout rate dipped back to pre-2011 levels, but given his history, maybe he simply peaked in 2011 and 2012 and this just represents the standard performance curve and not an imminent decline. He hit a real rough patch in July and August, when he struck out just 15.6% of the batters he faced. As an owner of him on several teams, I panicked, but he rebounded in September by striking out 27.2% of opposing hitters, suggesting that it was nothing to worry about after all.
Still, Shields induced the lowest SwStk% on his signature pitch, the change-up, since 2009. Although he has added velocity to his fastball over the years to take the pitch from below average to acceptable, he relies on that change and his assortment of breaking balls to put batters away. If his change loses effectiveness, his performance is going to go downhill quickly.
Perhaps the most frightening trend is one that could be summed up visually.
Shields has always been known as an elite control artist and aside from his killer change-up, it greatly contributed to his success. But even that skill has been trending in the wrong direction and is getting dangerously close to the league average. Of course, Shields displayed pinpoint control immediately upon debuting and it’s extremely difficult to maintain a walk rate that low. So we could have figured that it wasn’t going to last forever, but his walk rate has increased in almost lock-step fashion.
Then in August during an uncharacteristically poor month from a skills perspective, Shields walked 10.5% of the batters he faced, which was easily his highest of any month. Personally, I was concerned about a hidden injury, perhaps as a result of all those innings he has piled up. This was especially true when combined with the aforementioned drop in strikeout rate. But we didn’t hear a peep, and he was relatively back to normal in September.
The increased walk rate surely was driven by a drop in his F-Strike%, a mark that set a new career low and sat below the league average for the first time since he debuted in 2006. All of these warning signs validate the worries that Jeff Zimmerman shared in the preseason, when he asked whether Shields was breaking down. One of the issues Zimmerman brought up was Shields’ plummeting Zone%. That rate did rise slightly this season, but only a smidgen. While the surface results seem to suggest there is absolutely nothing wrong or reason to be concerned, the underlying data says otherwise.
I have found that Shields has generally been undervalued in fantasy drafts, which is why I have owned him so often. However, I am more worried than I have been heading into next season and would be wary about paying full price to roster him.
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