How are you supposed to follow-up the best pitching season in the history of the franchise you play for? That’s James Shields‘ task for 2012. This past season, Shields went 16-12 with a 2.82 ERA in 33 starts and 249.1 IP. He struck out 225 (8.1 K/9), walked 65 (2.3 BB/9), and allowed 26 home runs (0.9 HR/9), amounting to a 3.42 FIP although his xFIP was surprisingly lower despite Shields pitching half his games at the Trop, coming in at 3.25. But the most impressive stats were that Shields tossed 11 complete games, the most of any pitcher in a single season since the turn of the millennium, and also 4 shutouts, tied for first in the AL. Even crazier than Shields’ 2011 stats themselves were that he was coming off a 2010 season in which he went 13-15 with a 5.18 ERA and a 4.24 FIP. What changed from 2010 to 2011 for Shields? And more importantly, will he able to continue his ace-type performance in 2012?
Stats can fluctuate from season to season. So do pitchers’ velocity and movement on their pitches, but less so, especially as sample sizes increases, unless a major adjustment is made. Pitchers can control how they mix the pitches in their arsenal, and sometimes throwing pitches more or less can increase or decrease their effectiveness. Let’s see if Shields’ 2011 improvement was because of any sort of adjustment to how he used his pitches.
(For information on the topic of Pitch F/X and specifically how to read his type of graph, please see here.)
The two graphs look extremely similar, but the big difference comes in the key. Shields threw his fastball and sinker less and threw his curveball significantly more often. That ended up making a huge difference. Shields’ fastball and sinker have somewhat different movement, but we can lump them together as his fastballs. He went from throw fastballs 46% of the time in 2010 to just 36% of the time in 2011. In 2010, both of Shields’ fastballs were significantly below average pitches, with his fastball generating swings and misses just 5.09% of the time he threw it, which you can compare to the league average of 6.65% for fastballs in 2011, and his sinker got just 3.63% whiffs compared to the 4.59% league average. In 2010, Shields was able to post a 2.47 to 1 groundball to flyball ratio with his sinker, but he was at just 0.75 to 1 with his fastball as hitter simply hammered the pitch. Shields’ cutter was also a below-average pitch, while his changeup was slightly above-average. His only true plus pitch in 2010 was his changeup. Shields still has excellent control and he can generate swings and misses, but his fatal flaw in 2010 was a 1.5 HR/9, and although he got swings and misses with his curveball and changeup, he simply could not force weak contact with his other pitches.
In 2011, believe it or not, Shields actually got less swings and misses on his fastball, just 3.91% of the times he threw it. He did get his GB/FB up to 1.07 to 1, but his sinker’s GB/FB dropped to 1.75 to 1. Shields’ cutter also remained a bad pitch. But despite all that, he was able to turn himself around by depending on his two plus pitches, his curveball and his changeup. As Shields threw his curveball more, he was able to get better bite on it, and even though he was throwing it so much more often, he was able to use it more effectively than before, generating whiffs 13.34% of the times he threw it compared to the 10.54% league average. His changeup meanwhile, remained close to unhittable because he was able to use his various fastballs just enough to step it up and force whiffs 22.03% of the time compared to the 13.54% league average. James Shields has realized that he can’t rely on his fastball and has to build off his strengths, his changeup and curveball. He controls all of his pitches very well to both sides of the plate and he’s able to mix his pitches effectively enough to keep hitters from sitting on any of his pitches. Because of his sub-par fastball, we can expect Shields to be stuck at the 0.9 HR/9 that he posted in 2011 for the foreseeable future, and if he leaves the Trop, his homer rate could become a serious problem again. But he’s shifty in the way he uses his pitches, and he has the excellent offspeed pitches to compensate for the problems with his fastball, and that makes him an excellent pitcher. But James Shields is no ace. He’s a dependable innings-eater with superb secondary pitches and exemplary control, but his lack of an effective fastball makes him more of a number two starter. He showed flashes of greatness in 2011, but they were transient. That’s not the pitcher he is.
No matter how much I want James Shields to continue to be an ace for the Rays, it’s not realistic. We have to expect a regression in 2012 for Shields. I would project Shields to throw 34 starts and 240 IP and strike out 221 (8.3 K/9), walk 61 (2.3 BB/9), and allow 27 home runs (1.0 HR/9), which (factoring in a few HBP’s) amounts to a 3.62 FIP. Factoring in the Rays’ defense, that would be around a 3.28 ERA, and considering how many innings Shields would be throwing, that would still make him a very good pitcher. James Shields is no ace, but he has the ability to be a dependable pitcher for the Rays both in 2012 and for the remainder of his time in St. Petersburg. He’s the veteran presence the Rays need in the upper portion of their rotation and he’ll big a vital piece as the Rays look to take the next step in 2012.
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