James Shields and 7 of the Biggest AL East Pitching Surprises of 2011

William JohnsonCorrespondent IIIJune 9, 2011

James Shields and 7 of the Biggest AL East Pitching Surprises of 2011

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    BALTIMORE, MD - MAY 06:  James Shields #33 of the Tampa Bay Rays pitches against the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on May 6, 2011 in Baltimore, Maryland.  (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)
    Greg Fiume/Getty Images

    James Shields' ability to pitch deep into games (if not the whole game) and to make hitters whiff at an impressive rate (90 Ks thus far this season) while maintaining a 2.85 ERA has surprised many, even Tampa natives who have his back.

    His 5-4 record is more indicative of his career (he's 61-55 overall), but everything else has been impressive and noteworthy. After a mediocre-to-poor 2010, Shields' resurgence is a good story.

    Ironically, as I was writing this, Shields had been pulled from a tight 3-0 game against the Los Angeles Angels with the bases loaded and no outs. This was, of course, after pitching seven scoreless innings with eight strikeouts and only three walks.

    Unfortunately for Rays fans, the next pitch, by reliever Cesar Ramos, led to a bases-clearing double; sadly, Shields was charged with the runs, and to make matters worse, the game was tied 3-3.

    It happens. Such is the life of the pitcher. You win some, you lose some. You also win a lot or lose a lot, and you'll NEVER make everyone happy.

    But regardless of your history, fans, critics and the media will always find room in their hearts to be surprised. What's not guaranteed, however, is how said fans, critics and media will represent you when you are either surprisingly great or surprisingly bad.

    Here are seven other examples of AL East pitchers that have managed to surprise us all so far in 2011, for better or worse.

Josh Beckett, Red Sox

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    NEW YORK, NY - MAY 14:  Josh Beckett #19 of the Boston Red Sox delivers a pitch against the New York Yankees on May 14, 2011 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York City.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
    Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

    It's almost not fair to be surprised that Beckett is doing so well this year considering that the majority of the time he has spent with the Red Sox has been successful.

    Since joining the Sox in 2006 and up until 2009, Beckett was a reliable source for 15-plus victories, capping it all off with a 20-win season in '07 (compared to only seven losses and three no-decisions). Overall, during that four-year period, Beckett gave the Sox 65 total wins (plus an additional four playoff wins, including a six-hit, one-run masterpiece against the Rockies in the 2007 World Series).

    But as Beckett became the end-all, be-all ace of 2010, obliteration by the Yankees on Opening Day coupled with bad injuries made Beckett more of a liability than anything else during that injury-plagued year for Beantown.

    His return in 2011 was not exactly heralded, and thoughts of the most recent disasters (2010: 6-6, 5.78 ERA, nine no-decisions and consistent injury) overcame the two World Series rings he acquired and the solid winning percentage he earned while in Boston.

    But the good feeling is coming back. In 12 games so far in 2011, Beckett's ERA is an impressive 2.01. He's only allowed three home runs and is striking out 2.5 batters per walk.

    While his average 4-2 record and six no-decisions are indicative of the Red Sox's early struggles and lack of run support during that premature doom and gloom period, Beckett has reestablished himself as the No. 2 behind ace Jon Lester. 

    Those who doubted are changing their minds. Those who were worried can worry no more. Those fearing less 2007 and more 2010 can finally relax. Beckett is a nice surprise in the AL East so far.

Dan Wheeler, Red Sox

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    FT. MYERS, FL - FEBRUARY 20:  Dan Wheeler #36 of the Boston Red Sox poses for a portrait during the Boston Red Sox Photo Day on February 20, 2011 at the Boston Red Sox Player Development Complex in Ft. Myers, Florida  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
    Elsa/Getty Images

    It's almost like a curse, but the mass exodus from Tampa's bullpen hasn't exactly yielded great results for those that acquired them.

    Dan Wheeler is no exception. While not the go-to middle reliever and holds man in Tampa Bay, Wheeler provided three-and-a-half years of 40 to 50 strikeouts, very few walks and an ERA never going past 3.35.

    So far in this young season with the Sox, however, Wheeler has only provided two holds while giving the Sox a loud 7.31 ERA (almost one run allowed per inning pitched).

    The Rays bullpen was praised heavily last year, so when other teams got to take their shots at the highly praised arms, many have disappointed. It's not limited to, but definitely includes, Dan Wheeler.

A.J. Burnett, Yankees

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    NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 08:  A.J. Burnett #34 of the New York Yankees heads back to the dugout after the fourth inning against the Boston Red Sox during their game on June 8, 2011 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York City.  (Photo by Al Bello/Ge
    Al Bello/Getty Images

    Much like with Shields, when I decided to write this article, Burnett got annihilated by the Red Sox (though he did get the no-decision).

    While Burnett has never been a win volume guy, his 10-15 record last year (coupled with the big contract and a 5.26 ERA that was far above his career résumé) left a bad taste in not just Yankees fans' mouths.

    So it is with no surprise that fans are back on the Burnett wagon after a marvelous April (4-1, 3.93 ERA) and an overall 6-4 record with 60 Ks.

    At the very least, the Yankee faithful don't have to worry about what Burnett they are going to get each night. Yet.

Rafael Soriano, Yankees

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    NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 26:  Rafael Soriano #29 of the New York Yankees walks to the dugout after the top of the eighth inning against the Chicago White Sox at Yankee Stadium on April 26, 2011 in the Bronx borough of New York City.  (Photo by Chris Trotman/G
    Chris Trotman/Getty Images

    The Yankees though that by acquiring the 45-save, 1.73 ERA, All-Star, Cy Young candidate Rafael Soriano from the Rays they'd have not only the most brutal setup man/closer combo in the league (Soriano/Mariano Rivera), but they'd have their ace closer for years and years to come as well.

    But now Soriano is on the DL after walking 11 batters (he only walked 14 all of last year) and allowing nine earned runs in only 15 total innings for a whopping 5.40 ERA and even a loss!

    This was more than surprising. It was simply shocking.

Kyle Farnsworth, Rays

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    FT. MYERS, FL - FEBRUARY 22:  Kyle Farnsworth #43 of the Tampa Bay Rays poses for a portrait during the Tampa Bay Rays Photo Day on February 22, 2011 at the Charlotte Sports Complex in Port Charlotte, Florida.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
    Elsa/Getty Images

    Kind of the prime example of the MLB journeyman, not much was thought of Farnsworth when he joined the Rays' depleted bullpen.

    If anything, it made people miss the departed relievers even more. Who needs a 35-year-old traveler with a lifetime ERA north of 4.50? During that long and varied career, Farnsworth managed one great 16-save season split between the Tigers and Braves, but basically he wasn't the ideal replacement for a stud like Soriano.

    Going into the season, Farnsworth, fighting for a closing role, had 27 total saves for his career. After a save on the night of June 8th against the Angels, Farnsworth's season total was 13. Add a 1.23 ERA and you have one of the surprise pitchers not just of the AL East, but of the entire league.

Carlos Villanueva, Blue Jays

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    KANSAS CITY, MO - JUNE 08:  Starting pitcher Carlos Villanueva #33 of the Toronto Blue Jays reacts after giving up a three-run home run to Melky Cabrera #53 in the 3rd inning of the game against the Kansas City Royals on June 8, 2011 at Kauffman Stadium i
    Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    The former middle reliever and setup man with Milwaukee joined Toronto in 2011, and after a wonderful April with 13 Ks and a 1.84 ERA, the Jays decided Villanueva should be at the back end of the starting rotation.

    He hasn't disappointed. He stands at 4-0 with a 3.09 ERA and 0.99 WHIP. In a division where a division title is decided by a handful of wins, Toronto's surprising move of Villanueva from the bullpen to the rotation may help it improve for the better.

Zach Britton, Orioles

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    BALTIMORE, MD - JUNE 03:  Starting pitcher Zach Britton #53 of the Baltimore Orioles delivers to a Toronto Blue Jays batter at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on June 3, 2011 in Baltimore, Maryland.  The Blue Jays won 8-4. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
    Rob Carr/Getty Images

    The rookie pitcher's first game ever was on the road against the likes of Evan Longoria, Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez. What happened?

    A near masterpiece, that's what: Only allowing three hits and one earned run, Britton was the key in leading the Orioles to an impressive 5-1 win and was the impetus for a three-game sweep.

    While the Orioles have not kept up the dominance they showed at the end of 2010 and at the beginning of 2011, Britton, the young rookie, has been a surprisingly consistent piece of the Orioles puzzle.

    He had a 4-1 April and, thanks to low run support, had an up-and-down May (1-2, 3.00 ERA).

    Overall he's 6-4 and still has an impressive 3.18 ERA. Look for him to move up the rotation chain in the Orioles' future.