Game 10 Preview: Breaking Down James Shields’ Fenway Struggles

By Robbie Knopf

The Rays have lost four consecutive games and 5 of 6 since sweeping the Yankees to begin the season. The only time they’ve won: when James Shields was the starting pitcher. Can Shields be the stopper once again today?

You probably heard the alarming stat that has Rays fans everywhere nervous about a possible sweep: in 10 career starts at Fenway Park, Shields is 1-9 with a 6.75  ERA. Should we be concerned?

We have the ability to break down Shields’ Fenway numbers down even more. In addition to his 1-9 record and 6.75 ERA in his 10 Fenway starts, Shields has struck out 48 (7.9 K/9), walked 17 (2.8 BB/9), and allowed 10 home runs (1.7 HR/9) in 54.2 IP. That amounts to a 4.92 FIP. Uh-oh.

But wait a second: those 10 starts are over the course of the last five years. We know that Shields is not the same pitcher that he used to be. Let’s break down his performance at Fenway season-by-season.

We do see that Shields pitched well or at least better at Fenway in 2011, managing a 4.20 ERA and 4.40 FIP. He even threw a complete game in there, albeit one that he lost. But the previous three seasons, he got completely shelled.  We can’t simply ignore the games from before 2011. So we’ll have to resort to looking at more data. We’ll use xFIP and BAbip.

xFIP tells us that Shields has been even more unlucky than we saw before. Other than his disastrous 4.2 inning stint in 2008, Shield’s average xFIP per season was 3.80, not far from his 3.66 career mark. We also see that his average BAbip at Fenway taking out his 2008 debacles was  .304, even closer to his .301 career BAbip. Shields really has not been that bad at Fenway. He’s just been a victim of some bad luck. But we also know that Fenway is a hitter’s park. But Shields has allowed home runs on an abnormally high 14.7% of the flyballs he allowed compared to the league average of around 10.0%. Also notable is that he posted a .97 groundball to flyball ratio, a good deal better than his .79 career mark. Usually as a pitcher, when you force more groundballs you allow less home runs. That was not the case at all with Shields.

What does this all tell us? Shields surface numbers at Fenway may be terrifying to us Rays fans, but those numbers are so bad largely because of bad luck. What does this mean for today? Absolutely nothing. Anything can happen in a single game. But we know that James Shields is one heck of a pitcher and with him on the mound the Rays have a very good chance of winning. Hopefully Shields can go out today and prove that his 1-9 record and 6.75 ERA at Fenway are meaningless and deliver the Rays to a much-needed win.