When you think of elite pitchers, James Shields is not one of the first people who comes to mind. It is easy to pass over a pitcher in a discussion just because he hasn't had past success.
After a strong start to the season, many people were skeptical whether Shields could sustain his success. His 2010 campaign was disastrous, and bad luck aside, Shields was one of baseball's most ineffective pitchers that year.
But this season, James Shields has been great. Scratch that--incredible. Unbelievable. Dominant. In the course of one offseason, he has transformed himself from mediocre workhorse to a legitimate front-of-the-rotation starter.
So what is behind Shields' success? Let's take a look.
Last year and this year have been night and day for James Shields in a variety of ways. A big reason, however, is luck.
This is a serious turnaround. Last year, Shields was among baseball's unluckiest pitchers.
This year, he has been a beneficiary of great defense, stranding runners (as a result of more strikeouts), and less balls leaving the ballpark. Take a look at these numbers below and you'll see what I mean.
Up until last year, the strikeout had never been a big part of James Shields' game. Because he does not have that 97 MPH fastball that is common among most of the great strikeout pitchers, one would not expect him to rack up the K's.
But last year, he had an 8.28 K/9 ratio. This year, it's slightly higher at 8.65. But there is a huge difference between these numbers. What is it?
This year, Shields has gotten swinging strikes on 12 percent of his pitches. Last year, it was only 9.5. That is a huge, huge jump. Across the board, on pitches in the zone and out of the zone, hitters are simply making less contact.
It's not just about the strikeout. It's about keeping hitters off balance with four quality pitches.
It is the great equalizer, the pitch that, if mastered, can complete a pitcher's repertoire. For James Shields, it's always been there. It just hasn't been this good.
The curveball is a huge reason for Shields' success this year. In terms of runs saved per 100 pitches, his curveball has jumped from saving the Rays 0.1 runs to saving them 1.75 runs.
That is a big, big difference. It's clear to anyone who has watched Shields that he's always had a good curve. But this year, he is locating it as well as ever.
This year, Shields has gotten swings and misses on 14 percent of his changeups. Last year, it was only 11.5. Long story short, the nasty curveball that he has always possessed is truly breaking out this year.
Last year, Shields' worst two pitches were his fastball and his cutter. The fastball is something we'll get to in a minute. But perhaps the single most important component of his success this year has been the ability to throw an effective cutter.
The 2010 cutter was absolutely miserable. It's value of minus-1.79 runs per 100 pitches made it one of baseball's single worst pitches. It had an 8.5 percent whiff rate, and clearly, Shields was not comfortable throwing it.
Now, this year, Shields hasn't exactly been Mariano Rivera, but this is definitely an excellent cutter. This year, it's actually saving the Rays runs rather than costing them, and it is turning into a venerable out pitch. But the curious thing is that the whiff rate on the pitch has actually gone down from last year.
All that says is that it's easier to hit, but tougher to drive. Hitters are getting jammed left and right, and Shields' ridiculous 14.9 percent infield fly ball rate is a testament to that.
The interesting thing about Shields' fastball is that it, just like the cutter, has a lower whiff rate this year (4.1 percent) than last year (4.8 percent). But that matters little when you examine the value of the pitch. Check this out: James Shields' fastball, which cost the Rays 1.62 runs per 100 pitches, is giving then 0.47. That's a full two run swing, and that wins baseball games.
The obvious reason for this is command. Last year, Shields was leaving many, many fastballs over the middle of the plate. This heat map indicates that, where the lighter colors mean more pitches in that location. The same pitch in 2011, although not a huge difference on the map, shows more pitches located on the corners of the strike zone.
Just like real estate, in baseball, location is everything. And Shields is putting his fastball where he wants to.
The pitch that everyone knows James Shields for is his changeup. It's always been his best, and it's always been among the best in baseball. But just how good has it been this year? Let's look.
In 2010, Shields threw the changeup 22.8 percent of the time. He got swings on 59.3 percent of those pitches, and misses on 21.3 percent. Those are great numbers.
But this year, Shields has thrown the changeup more (29 percent), gotten more swings (62.2 percent), and more misses (22.8 percent).
The value of the pitch per 100 tosses is 2.13 runs saved, as opposed to 1.13 last year. Shields isn't in the top ten, or even top fifteen, in changeup value. But he is ahead of such names as Roy Halladay, Tim Linceum, Justin Verlander, and C.C. Sabathia. Impressive stuff.
Now that we've examined each of Shields' pitches, it's time to look at the results. Obviously, we've talked a lot about swings and misses, which have occurred on twelve percent of all swings. But what happens when hitters do make contact? Well, in short, not much.
To save some words, take a look at the table below showing the difference in Shields' batted balls numbers between 2010 and 2011.
|Type of Contact||2010||2011||Differential|
There is little question in anyone's mind that this season, James Shields has been a top-five pitcher in the American League. But many people don't get to see Shields pitch as much as they get to see the Tim Lincecums or Roy Halladays or Justin Verlanders of the world.
So in the table below is Shields stacked up against baseball's best. You can make your own judgements.
|Shields||8 ||4 ||2.29 ||8.65 ||2.07 ||0.96 ||
3 ||81 ||2.7
1.86 ||7.73 ||2.93 ||0.92 ||1 ||1 ||73 ||2.5
9 ||3 ||2.54 ||8.20 ||1.94 ||
0.85 ||4 ||2 ||76 ||3.0
9 ||4 ||3.39 ||6.63 ||2.29 ||1.24 ||1 ||0 ||73 ||3.0
|Lincecum||6 ||6 ||3.16 ||
9.66 ||3.25 ||1.19 ||1 ||1 ||76 ||2.6
|Hernandez||8 ||6 ||3.19 ||8.75 ||2.89||1.16 ||2 ||0 ||75 ||3.1
|Lee||8||5||2.87 ||9.08||1.99||1.12 ||3 ||
3 ||72 ||3.3