In a season with two no-hitters and a few spectacular shutouts, James Shields delivered the best starting pitching performance of the season against the Florida Marlins on Sunday, allowing only three hits, one walk and striking out thirteen. Only one runner reached scoring position, and not one Marlins hitter had an extra base hit against him.
Shields' performance garnered the highest game score of the 2011 season at 93, improving his record to 5-2 and lowering his ERA to 2.06 for the season.
Shields used every one of his pitches effectively, and he threw strikes at an effective rate (62.9 percent). The change-up and curveball were the two most effective weapons for Shields. He recorded a 30 percent swinging strike rate on his change-up, and the curveball recorded a 26 percent rate.
This performance is a microcosm of Shields' resurgent season. Last season, an extremely high .341 BABIP, below average 68.7 strand rate and a high 13.8 percent HR/FB ratio negatively contributed to a lackluster 5.18 ERA. His xFIP of 3.55 indicated he would be a candidate to have a bounce back season, and surely he has exceeded those expectations.
Shields has posted a 2.68 xFIP this season because of an increased ground ball rate (45.2 percent from 41.3 percent), and an improvement in his peripherals. He has the highest strikeout rate of his career at 8.59 K/9 by increasing his swinging strike percentage to 11.6 (another career high). Additionally, he has dropped his walk rate from 2.26 to 1.76 BB/9.
Fortunes have improved for Shields in 2011, but Tampa Bay Rays fans have seen a slight adjustment in his approach. He has increased the usage of his change-up (25 % to 28 %) and curveball (13.5 % to 19.1 %) while decreasing the usage of his fastball (46.1 % to 40.1 %) and his cutter (15.5 % to 12.2 %).
Rays General Manager Andrew Friedman made the right move in trading Garza and not Shields during the offseason, and the club has reaped the benefits. Fans shouldn't expect Shields to pitch to a 2.00 ERA for the rest of the season, but he should continue his success.