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Watching James Shields: A Rays World Series Running Commentary

By Robbie Knopf
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With James Shields pitching tonight for the Kansas City Royals in Game 1 of the World Series against the San Francisco Giants, this was a good time to provide a Tampa Bay Rays perspective on the MLB Postseason. After every inning of the game, this will be continually updated with various thoughts on Shields, Wade Davis, and anything else that comes to mind.

Pre-game: The story about Shields passing a kidney stone during the ALCS is pretty crazy. This guy was in excruciating pain yet told the team that he would pitch whenever they wanted! That’s who Shields really is. He isn’t Big Game James. He’s just a pitcher that you have to physically restrain to stop him from trying to be dependable for you whenever possible.

This is a guy who tossed over 200 innings in 2010 despite a 5.18 ERA! It’s the same James Shields that was ready to pitch through the pain and go for the Royals in Game 4 of the ALCS or Game 5 had it been needed and was certainly going to take the ball for them tonight.

After first inning (8:40 PM EST): James Shields‘ first pitch was a 93 MPH fastball just outside. His third offering reached as high as 94 MPH. Then, on his fifth pitching, he left a changeup up at 86 MPH and Gregor Blanco took it centerfielder for a single. The inning only got worse from there.

The 94 MPH fastball and 86 MPH changeup both seemed pretty foreign for me as I recalled the James Shields I knew and attempted to make sense of the pitcher I was seeing. The first thought that crossed my mind was “is he overthrowing?” Well, he really was not. This season, his fastball averaged 93.67 MPH while his changeup averaged 86.12 MPH. Believe it or not, as Shields’ career has gone on, he has thrown harder. In fact it’s pretty staggering, as this Brooks Baseball graph shows.

Look at the changeup! It has gone from ordinary changeup velocity in the low-80’s all way up into Alex Cobb split-change territory as his career has gone on.

What can we learn from this? The first thought that comes to mind is that Shields pitches for the long haul. It took him a while to hit his stride–he had a 4.84 ERA his rookie year in 2006 and looking like a mid-rotation pitcher on the whole from 2007 to 2010, although Rays fans could certainly make an argument about 2008. Then, since 2011, he has turned into an ace, and it really has been something to behold.

How has James Shields pulled it off? Well, this is a pitcher who knows how to make adjustments. A quick look at Shields’ Baseball America page reveals that he once had a “plus curveball,” but after that disappeared following shoulder surgery, suddenly he developed a changeup that quickly became his best pitch. Obviously, the curveball has returned–it was the pitch on which he gave up Pablo Sandoval‘s RBI double–but this is a pitcher who knows how to tweak his arsenal to continuously maximize his strengths. We’ve seen pitchers like Roy Halladay, CC Sabathia, and Justin Verlander collapse after losing velocity. That will not be James Shields.

After second inning (9:05 PM):

13 pitches, zero changeups. The second inning certainly went much better for James Shields, but his signature offering was noticeably absent. Instead, we saw 5 two-seam fastballs, 4 four-seamers, 3 cutters, and 1 curveball. So, among Shields’ two “plus offerings” when he was a prospect, he used them a combined one time over the course of an inning. That’s pretty crazy.

It’s funny comparing James Shields to the discipline of his disciple, Jake Odorizzi. Remember when Odorizzi was struggling with the second time through the batting order? Well, it’s worth noting that it’s not as though Odorizzi throws so many fewer pitches than Shields. If we group Shields’ four-seamer and two-seamer together, both pitchers throw four different offerings. Why do we see Shields adapting so well while pitchers like Odorizzi can fall apart? Is Shields’ stuff really so much better?

A major difference between Shields and so many pitchers with similar arsenals is his priority. This isn’t a guy who goes out to the mound trying to pitch well–this is a pitcher aiming to to deep into games. If Odorizzi has a great changeup one day or a team is really falling for his fastball up, he is going to keep going to it in lieu of his other pitches. For Shields, meanwhile, it is his holistic perspective on the mound that can make him so effective. He always looks for multiple avenues to retire hitters, and he doesn’t want just two (like, for instance, fastball up or split-change down), but even five or six.

The fact that Shields is so comfortable with all his pitches and is willing to use any of them to put away hitters is a major asset that helps him go deeper into games and especially adjust after a rough beginning, as is the case in this game. Shields’ three runs allowed in the first inning were obviously bad, but he has enough weapons and enough divergent approaches that he certainly isn’t going to give up. Even if his changeup never comes over the course of this game, he is prepared to pitch without it and find a way to survive. (10:20 PM Update: Obviously that did not work out.)

After third inning (9:19 PM EST):

This last flyball to the track brought to mind one of my favorite intricacies of baseball: the home fans’ clap when one of their outfielders catches a flyball that just missed being a home run. Don’t they realize that their pitcher made a mistake and got lucky? Well, they do, but that’s exactly the point.

A flyout to the track is not an objectively good outcome–allow too many similar flyballs, and some will go over the fence–but it is certainly much better than the expected outcome off the bat. When you see a high flyball or a bullet line drive, everyone assumes the worst. A thousand thoughts zoom through our minds in a brief period of time. To name a few:

  1. Oh shoot, is that ball out?
  2. He made another mistake? Sheesh, his command is bad tonight.
  3. This was the last guy you wanted to make a pitch like that to. Can’t say I’m surprised that it’s going to end up like this.
  4. The bullpen better get warming because he simply doesn’t have it.
  5. What a disappointing Game 1 start!
  6. Wait, maybe it will stay in the park!
  7. No, I’m probably just being overoptimistic.
  8. Wait, it could be caught by our centerfielder!
  9. He got it! He got it!
  10. Shields got lucky, wow.
  11. Getting his mistakes out of the way early, I like it!
  12. He’s going to be fine, the opposing team missed their chance.

The fact that we get so negative in the middle there makes it so much more satisfying when the end result is OK. It’s funny the way our brains work.

During fourth inning (9:33 PM)

No run support–James Shields is used to that. Remember his last game as a Ray? He tossed a complete game allowing just 2 hits while striking out 15 and walking none. But a Chris Davis homer was enough for him to lose the game because the Rays got him nothing.

We can’t say that Shields has gotten so much run support from this Royals team. On a park-adjusted basis, their offense was actually worse than the Rays in 2014! But this postseason has been a different story. He entered this game with a 5.63 ERA but a 1-0 record. Obviously, the ERA says a lot more about his pitching than the one win against no losses, but it’s nice for Shields to be picked up by his teammates after years of that so rarely happening.

Here’s a stat for you: in James Shields’ Tampa Bay Rays career, he went between less than 6 innings allowing between 4 and 6 runs on 20 different occasions per the Baseball-Reference Play Index. The Rays went just 3-17 in those games, with Shields going 0-14. This postseason for the Royals, Shields entered this game with two such starts and the Royals were 2-0. That probably is about to change–Shields just allowed another run before departing, and Madison Bumgarner is an excellent pitcher on the other side. But after Shields did so much for his teammates, it’s nice for him to get something back.

After fourth inning (10:09 PM): 

Why has James Shields struggled so much during the postseason? He entered this game with a 5.19 ERA in 50.1 innings pitched–basically pitching like he did in his disastrous 2010–and now that mark has obviously gone up. Well, my knee-jerk reaction has to be the amount of innings he throws.

Shields finished the regular season with 227 innings pitched and now he is at 246+, just short of his career high of 254.1 (including postseason) from 2011. In 2008, when Shields had his best postseason performance, he only reached 240 IP between the regular season and the playoffs even though he averaged over 6 innings per postseason start. The fact that he only threw 215 regular season innings year gave him a few more bullets for the playoffs. The 12 less innings doesn’t seem like much, but pitchers really need all the innings they can get with everything on the line.

Another matter is not innings, but pitch count. Since 2013, Shields is second behind only Justin Verlander with 58 games with at least 100 pitches, and he is second behind Verlander going back to 2007 (and going back to 2008, 2009, or any year in between). He throws a lot of pitches nearly every single time out. But in 2008, he threw 100 or more pitches only 17 times, and if the 12 additional regular season innings did not look like a big difference, that following difference certainly will. In the years where we expected Shields to do well in the playoffs (excluding 2010), he threw 100 pitches in 29 games in 2011 and 28 such games in 2014. Those numbers are significantly higher than where he was in 2008.

There are certainly other factors here–there’s the whole kidney stone thing, and sometimes pitchers just have a few bad starts. Maybe Shields gets a little bit too amped up–a comprehensive study on the differences in his pitch velocity, pitch selection, and especially his command between the regular season and the playoffs is warranted. (I guess I should probably get on that.) But it is really so surprising that a pitcher who has thrown so many innings has a point where he eventually wears down?

During sixth inning (10:18 PM): 

I guess this has run its course, with James Shields out of this game and the contest as a whole not looking like much of a ballgame. Thanks for reading, and we’ll have at least one more piece on Shields, on his “Big Game James” nickname, coming over the next day.

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