A quick look at the player page of James Shields might lead you to believe that he has returned his draft day value for his fantasy owners. His ERA is only a tick higher than it was last year, his WHIP is exactly the same, and his K-BB% is virtually the same. But he’s only been the 39th best starting pitcher according to ESPN’s player rater despite being the 17th pitcher taken on average back in March. To be fair, there is value in a pitcher not being a bust. Shields owners are surely happier with what they’ve gotten out of him than are the owners of pitchers that he was sandwiched between in final ADP, Homer Bailey and Matt Cain. But because it might appear that Shields has been as good as people expected him to be and because he’s been good for four years now, his ADP is likely to be near the top 20 among starters again next year. And it would be a mistake to pay that price.
Let’s start by discussing why Shields’ K-BB% being almost as good as it was last year is deceiving. Shields has gotten to his 13.7 K-BB% with fewer walks but also fewer strikeouts than he had last year. He’s losing strikeouts because his change is losing effectiveness against left-handed hitters. As you can see below, he’s been getting fewer whiffs with his change against lefties with each passing year. He peaked in 2011 with a 22.4% whiff rate with his change when the average velocity on the pitch was a hair under 84 mph. As the whiffs have declined, the average velocity on the pitch has risen to more than 85 mph. From 2011 to 2013, he was better against lefties with a .283 wOBA allowed to them compared to a .301 wOBA allowed to righties. But this year lefties have had more success off Shields than righties.
As mentioned, his K-BB% is almost identical to last year despite the strikeout decline because he’s issuing fewer walks. But his WHIP has not improved with fewer walks because he’s allowing more hits. Fewer strikeouts plus fewer walks means more balls in play. He’s on pace to allow more hits this season than he has in any of the past three seasons in fewer innings pitched.
The trend toward more balls in play is particularly discouraging because Shields is a free agent. If he leaves Kansas City, a higher percentage of those balls in play are going to result in hits. The Royals defense has been worth 61 runs above average at this point. And as Rany Jazayerli pointed out recently, their outfield defense has been astoundingly good. You could make the argument they have the three best outfielders in the league defensively. Not that any of us are Nostradamus, but the odds Shields re-signs with the Royals are slim. No matter where he goes next year, his defense won’t be turning as many balls in play into outs.
The part about Kansas City’s outfield defense being so good is particularly concerning given that hitters have a very high OPS on balls in play against Shields. Shields’ sOPS+ on batted balls is almost 25% worse than league average. The only other pitchers who have allowed 500+ balls in play with an sOPS+ more than 20% worse than league average are Justin Verlander, John, Danks, Brandon McCarthy and Wily Peralta. It’s fly balls in particular that are hurting Shields. His sOPS+ on fly balls is 151 (100 is average) despite his HR/FB rate being below his career average. If he no longer has the best outfield defense in baseball behind him, that number could get even worse.
There are, of course, several unknown factors that will affect Shields’ performance next year. Maybe he lands in a another good ballpark or with a team where the defensive drop off won’t be so large. Maybe he’ll land with a team with a good offense that can help him climb above 15 wins. All of that could help his fantasy value. But probably only marginally. The fact that he’s in decline and leaving the best defense in baseball makes it unlikely that he’ll have more fantasy value next year than he does right now. And right now he’s only a borderline top 40 starting pitcher in fantasy. Maybe his ADP won’t be near the top 20 pitchers again next year, but given his ERA and track record of success, that ADP range seems more likely than something around 40. If that assumption about ADP is correct, there’s no reason to draft Shields next year.
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