Last season, James Shields was one of the best pitchers in baseball. He never should have been.
You look at James Shields’ MLB career and he’s been all over the place. Here’s a nice little graph to save you a few seconds of reading time.
Looking at Shields’ ERA over the years, it has ranged from 2.82 to 5.18, quite a range. His FIP normalizes that a little bit, but there’s still definitely some variability involved there as well. Why has this happened?
The answer to this question is relatively simple for anyone who has watched Shields over the years: he just doesn’t have the dominating stuff. Shields has always been a pitcher with outstanding control. The question for him has been strikeouts and walks allowed. Here’s another graph.
You look at the walk rate and it remained relatively constant, basically staying between 1.5 and 2.3 between 2007 and 2011. But his strikeout rate has been noticeably more fluctuating, ranging from 6.7 to 8.1 from 2007 to 2011, and his homer rate ranged from 0.9 to 1.3, which is a big difference (that’s a difference of nearly 9 home runs every 200 innings). James Shields has always had great control, able to throw strikes at an incredibly high rate. That has never been in question. What has been questionable at times has been his command of his pitches, his ability to locate pitches exactly in the area he wants them in the zone. That has been specifically been a problem for him with his fastball, which at 90-91 MPH has been hit awfully hard when he has left it up in the zone. That has always made him especially dependent on his changeup, which we know is his best pitch. Shields has always thrown his changeup and incredible amount of the time. For his career (according to Brooks Baseball), Shields has thrown his four-seam fastball 31% of the time. He has thrown his changeup 26% of the time, not that far away at all. That’s a crazy amount of the time for a true offspeed pitch. It’s not like he’s throwing a sinker or cutter in the low-90′s or even high-80′s at that rate- Shields has thrown his two-seam fastball and cutter a combined 27% of the time. But his changeup 26% of the time? That’s absolutely insane. For a fastball at 90-91, if you miss your spot you can still get away with it oftentimes (if not as often compared to 94-95 MPH) by velocity alone. With a changeup that is not the case, especially since Shields mostly throws it in the mid-80′s not a huge speed difference from his fastball.
Just 21 pitchers in baseball threw a single breaking pitch as much as 25% of the time. They had a mean FIP of 4.03 and a median FIP of 3.96, for all purposes league average. Why? Because if they’re using it that often, it must be one heck of a pitch. But nevertheless, they’re usually about average. How did Shields manage such above-average ERA and FIP mark in 2011? His command of his changeup and his entire arsenal was completely on the vast majority of the time. But when it’s off, like it was on June 5th, Shields can get hit hard. Shields still shows flashes of being the human, average pitcher that he has the stuff to be. But his exceptional control and usually exceptional command of his repertoire keeps him a step ahead.