James Shields does not fit the mold for your typical frontline starter. His fastball touches the mid-90’s, but he does not command it very well and it’s really not that good of a pitch. Instead, he relies heavily on his excellent changeup along with a curveball and cutter in order to succeed. Shields looked like more of an innings-eating number three or four starter when he first came up to the big leagues, but the longer he has been in the big leagues the better he has improved his pitch selection and command and the better he has become. He’s a true ace, but for most of the last two years, he has pitched an awful lot like one.
In a recent article, my colleague Wally Fish at KC Kingdom talked about Shields as not being anything remotely resembling an ace. Fish proceeded to systematically attack Shields, using various statistics that made Shields look like a number two starter who is closer to a number three than an ace. I don’t disagree with Fish’s premise- James Shields is really not an ace. But before you try to tear Shields completely apart and ask yourself why any team in baseball would possibly consider giving up several top prospects to acquire him, let me state the other side of the argument.
From 2006 to 2010, James Shields, on the whole, was truly a number three or four starter. He went 56-51 with a 4.25 ERA (102 ERA+), a 7.4 K/9, a 2.0 BB/9, and a 1.2 HR/9 (4.07 FIP) in 977.2 combined innings. He had his moments, including a 14-8 record and a 3.56 ERA in the Rays’ magical 2008 run, but he really was not that good of a pitcher, throwing a lot of strikes but not missing many bats and allowing a lot of home runs. But since then, he has become a completely different pitcher. The last two seasons, he has gone 31-22 with a 3.15 ERA (120 ERA+), an 8.5 K/9, a 2.3 BB/9, and a 1.0 HR/9 (3.57 FIP) in 477 innings. What has happened? Has Shields just gotten lucky the last two years? Wait a second- aren’t his numbers mostly based on a 2011 season that may have been a fluke where he posted a 2.82 ERA. Yes, and in 2012 he slipped to 3.52. But before you read too much into that, Shields had a rough first half and then do you know what his ERA was in the second half? 2.81. For three-quarters of the last two seasons, he has been a pitcher with an ERA well under 3.00, and in the one quarter where he struggled, he had a 4.17 ERA and 3.86 FIP.
Even then, there’s still plenty of cause for debate. Numbers are nice, but Shields was pitching in an extreme pitcher’s ballpark with excellent defense behind him. What’s to say that he could possibly sustain such performance? Simple: his pitches. The past two years, Shields has used four different pitches at least 16% of the time according to Brooks Baseball. He had never done that previously in his career. What does that have to do with anything? For the first five years of his career, Shields was a pitcher trying too hard to pitch of a fastball that was never that great. The past two years, he has taken the load of his fastball by pitching more of his other pitches, even making his fastball more effective as hitters saw it less. Shields’ changeup has already been great, but he has really improved his curveball and cutter, forcing a 4-to-1 groundball to flyball ratio with the curve in 2012 compared to 2.64-to-1 for his career, and upping both his whiff rate and groundball to flyball ratio for his cutter. And even Shields’ changeup has vastly improved as Shields has really improved his arm slot on it to match his fastball’s. Per the Brooks Baseball data, in 2009, there was a 2.1º difference between Shields’ fastball and changeup, which doesn’t seem like very much until you visualize it. He threw his fastball at an 82.4º angle while his changeup was at an 80.3º angle. Look at the difference (the fastball is the line on the left).
It may take a second to notice it, but there’s a clear difference between the two lines and hitters could pick up when they saw Shields enough. In 2010, the gap in arm slot remained pretty large at 1.4º. But in 2011, he lowered the difference to just 0.5º and he stayed at 0.7º in 2012. That added deception made his already devastating changeup even better, allowing him to throw it more often and also adding effectiveness to his fastball. Shields has made clear improvements to his entire repertoire and the results are clear from both his Pitch F/X data and his stats.
Should the Royals trade Wil Myers and maybe even more for James Shields this offseason? That is a very tough decision as Myers is an extremely promising prospect and you don’t see players like him on the trade block very often. But if they acquire Shields, they can pencil him in for 220 innings and an ERA between 2.70 and 3.30 for the next two seasons- and how much would the Royals give for a dependable top-of-the-rotation starter who averaged an ERA right around 3.00 the next two years? Shields still might not be a number one starter. But he’s about as good as number two starters can possibly come and has the ability to make a major impact wherever he pitches next season. The price will be steep to acquire Shields from the Rays, but any team in baseball would be fortunate to have him as a member of their rotation. Don’t sell Shields short.