Rays News

On James Shields and the “Big Game James” Nickname

By Robbie Knopf
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The irony has continued, and it has actually gotten progressively worse. “Big Game” James Shields now has an 8.26 ERA in his six postseason starts since dominating for the Tampa Bay Rays in their 2008 World Series run. A pitcher who has completed six innings in over 85% of his starts since 2010, Shields hasn’t even recorded an out in the sixth in all but one of his six playoff starts in that span. Those numbers speak more to a pitcher that wilts under pressure rather than one that thrives in the face of it. With that in mind, what are we supposed to do with the “Big Game James” nickname? Should we just admit that it is a misnomer and move on?

This conversation has to begin with us pointing out the obvious: that James Shields has been an excellent regular season pitcher for quite a while now. For his career, he is now 114-90 with a 3.72 ERA, and he has taken that up a notch the last four seasons as he has gone 58-39 with a 3.17 ERA. 2014 marked Shields’ eighth straight season throwing at least 200 innings, and he has managed at least 215 IP in every year but one. This is a pitcher that you want on your team–there is a reason that the Kansas City Royals gave up Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi for him. At the same time, however, there is a clear difference between James Shields and your usual postseason ace.

There is a funny dichotomy present for James Shields–he has struck out over 220 batters in a season twice, but he doesn’t overpower you. Even though his fastball reaches 94 MPH quite often and occasionally can get up to 96 MPH, he loses when he is forced to attack hitters with it. Shields has great stuff, but there are so many moving parts involved. His changeup can make hitters look foolish, and his cutter and curveball give him two more impressive secondary pitches. This is a pitcher with as complete of an arsenal as anyone in baseball. Yet there are times when he looks helpless, times where you ask yourself how he could possibly be such an excellent pitcher.

Last night, James Shields’ changeup never came around. That has really been the story for him this entire postseason. Aside from his solid start on October 5th, Shields hasn’t really had a feel for his best offering this the playoffs begun, and because of that, he has looked human.

Shields is a pitcher in every sense of the word. He mixes four pitches seamlessly and his results are markedly better than what his individual pitches would indicate. However, his flaw is that each of his offerings is so integral to his success that losing one–especially his best pitch, his changeup–can be a fatal blow. This isn’t a guy that has ever been able to consistently blow fastballs by hitters. Instead, his outings are a carefully coordinated dance, a calculated combination of four-seamers, two-seamers, and cutters used to set up his changeup and the occasional curveball.

There was always something different between Shields and a pitcher like David Price as aces. (Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

It is not as though Shields can never survive without his best stuff. In his best season, 2011, he had five different games when he went 7 innings allowing 3 or 4 runs. Though the Rays lost four out of the five contests, he battled to provide length and save their bullpen for future games. In the same season, however, he allowed 6 or more earned runs on four different occasions. There have been 66 seasons since 2000 where a pitcher has managed an ERA below 2.85 in at least 200 innings–Shields’ four times allowing at least 6 earned runs in 2011 is the highest in the group. Even at the peak of his performance, James Shields had times where nothing was working.

In a quote many of us have seen, Billy Beane once said “my s___ doesn’t work in the playoffs,” referring to Moneyball. The same can be said of James Shields’ pitching. He is an excellent pitcher and an extremely reliable one over the course of the season, but there are a variety of factors working against him in the postseason. There is his very nature as a pitcher, the fact that he needs command of both fastball and changeup in order to pitch well. The quality of competition on the other side only makes it more difficult for him to survive if something goes wrong. We can also talk about his workload, which I talked about last night, as another factor working against him.

James Shields does so many things to get your team to October. He provides strong results in most of his outings along with an incredible amount of innings. He mentors the young pitchers on his team’s staff and often helps them take their changeups to the next level as well. But the principal downside to his game is his lack of an overpowering arsenal and his need to have a feel for all his pitches, and that has cost him so far in the playoffs.

The “big games” that James Shields pitches are regarded as such in hindsight. Over the course of a season, he will deliver several outstanding starts, and we’ll be saying “Big Game James delivers again.” However, Shields is not a pitcher who you know will keep you in the game no matter what happens. He is a pitcher that has made his living over what he can do over the course of the season, but individual games or even a four-start stretch can reveal how imperfect he is. Every pitcher can look bad in a small sample size, but Shields’ identity as a pitcher can make him look worse than most.

If you like, you can stop calling him Big Game James. In Game 7 of a postseason series, he is not the pitcher that you want on the mound. If you’re not going to stop calling him Big Game James, though, call him “Big Season James” because that is what he delivers year after year.

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