An disgusting change-up and a high-octane fastball. 2,598.1 innings pitched and 2,315 strikeouts combined. A total of 387 games started between the two greatest pitchers in Tampa Bay Rays history. David Price and James Shields were the best pitchers in franchise history, but which of the two was the greatest?
One pitcher started the most games in franchise history, the other was the franchise’s first to win a Cy Young. Together they are first and second in innings pitched, strikeouts, wins, complete games, and WAR for Rays pitchers. Both James Shields and David Price could be considered the best pitcher in Tampa Bay Rays history, but for the purpose of this article, only one will be named the greatest in franchise history.
James Shields or “Big Game James” as he was known during his time in Tampa Bay, began his career as a 24-year-old Devil Ray and left 7 seasons later as one of the most accomplished pitchers in Tampa Bay Rays history.
David Price began his career in Tampa Bay with a splash in 2008 making five appearances after a late September call-up and subsequently being added to the first Tampa Bay Rays playoff roster in team history. David Price’s “nerves of steel” performance in Game 7 of the ALCS seemingly marked the beginning of one of the most decorated careers in Rays history.
James Shields and David Price are without a doubt the two best pitchers in Tampa Bay Rays history, but which former Tampa Bay ace reigns supreme? Let’s take a deeper look at each of their fantastic careers in Tampa Bay.
The 466th player taken in the 2000 MLB Draft, drafted out of William S. Hart High School, James Shields would sign with the Rays and begin his professional career. He rose relatively quickly through the minor leagues, dominating during his last two years in minor league ball.
He would arrive in Tampa Bay in May of 2006 and make his debut on the 31st. In his debut, Shields would throw five innings, giving up five runs, and striking out five. A rather inauspicious start to what would be one of the most illustrious careers in franchise history. His next two starts he would throw a combined 13 scoreless innings and James Shields would remain on the roster for the rest off the season, finishing with a 6-8 record.
In each of the six seasons that followed his rookie campaign, Shields would throw at least 200 innings and rack up double-digit wins. In 4 of those seasons, he would finish with an ERA of 3.85 or below.
The worst of his seven seasons in Tampa Bay came in 2010. It was the only time he finished with a losing record and an ERA above 5.00 (5.18).
The best of his seven seasons came the following year, as he finished with an ERA below 3.00 (2.82) and 16 wins. He led the league with 11 complete games, a feat we may never see matched again. He would throw 249.1 innings in 2011 and finish third in the Cy Young Voting.
2012 would be his last year in a Rays uniform and it was a good one, as he finished with 15 wins and an ERA of 3.52, throwing 227.2 innings. He was traded the following offseason to the Kansas City Royals for a couple of prospects who would go on to have an impact in Tampa Bay.
WAR (Pitchers): 2nd (19.7)
ERA+: T-5 (107)
Games Started: 1st (217)
Innings Pitched: 1st (1454.2)
Strikouts: 1st (1250)
Wins: 1st (87)
Complete Games: 1st (19)
Shutouts: 1st (8)
ERA: 8th (3.89)
FIP: 4th (3.84)
K/9: 6th (7.734)
BB/9: 1st (2.104)
There is one caveat when using the rankings that are bolded when trying to justify one as the best pitcher in franchise history. What you will see is that David Price trails Shields in the bolded categories due to the fact that he only was able to pitch four full seasons in Tampa Bay compared to James Shields’ six.
Shields’ extra 2 full seasons in Tampa gave him the edge in a number of these categories. The thing is, these categories don’t tell us anything about how he pitched as a Ray, they only show us how much he pitched as a Ray.
What those numbers do show us is that James Shields was a winner and a workhorse on the mound. He knew how to win better than anyone in Rays history. When debating who the best pitcher in Tampa Bay Rays history, I would be remiss not begin the discussion with Big Game James.
The prized lefty out of Vanderbilt, David Price, was drafted 1st overall in the 2007 MLB Draft by the then Devil Rays. He would go on to dominate High-A and Double-A hitters and make 4 appearances in Triple-A before becoming a September call-up in 2008. He would make 5 appearances in September before being added to the playoff roster where he would truly announce his presence to the baseball community.
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He would make his debut on September 14th where he would throw 5.1 innings of relief, striking out 4 and giving up 2 runs. His real debut though came in Game 7 of the ALCS against the Boston Red Sox, where Joe Maddon called upon him to register the final four outs. The first of those four outs came with the bases loaded. The final of the four, sent the Rays to their first World Series ever.
The following season, he didn’t break camp with the team, instead he made his first appearance of the 2009 season on May 25th. He would start 22 more games that year en route to a rather middling rookie campaign. The following year he returned as a man on a mission and would go 19-6 with a 2.72 ERA, finishing second in the Cy Young race. The 2010 All-Star game would be the first of three consecutive All-Star games that Price would attend.
In 2011 he was good, but in 2012 he was the best in the American League. Price would cement his legacy in Tampa Bay becoming the first ever Rays pitcher to win the Cy Young award. He finished that year with a record of 20-5 and an ERA of 2.56. His ERA+ of 150 ranks as the second best single season ERA+ in franchise history behind Blake Snell’s most recent ERA+ of 219.
Essentially, Price pitched four full seasons in Tampa Bay, spanning from 2010 to 2013. In those four seasons, Price was absolutely dominant cementing his legacy in Tampa Bay Rays history.
Price would go on to pitch just half of 2014 in a Tampa Bay uniform before being traded to Detroit at the deadline in 2014 for none other than current shortstop, Willy Adames.
WAR (Pitchers): 1st (21.3)
ERA+: 1st (122)
Games Started: 3rd (170)
Innings Pitched: 2nd (1143.2)
Strikeouts: 3rd (1065)
Wins: 2nd (82)
Complete Games: 2nd (10)
Shutouts: T-5 (2)
ERA: 1st (3.18)
FIP: 1st (3.33)
K/9: 3rd (8.381)
BB/9: 3rd (2.432)
The bolded rankings for Price are different from those of Shields because the rankings bolded above speak to just how good of a pitcher David Price was as a Ray. While he trails Shields in many categories regarding appearances, he leads Shields in categories regarding true results.
David Price was a workhorse and a winner too. He was a true force to be reckoned with come every five days.
The best pitcher in Tampa Bay Rays history…?
There is no doubt that James Shields and David Price are the two best pitchers in Rays history, in fact James Shields is the best right-handed pitcher and David Price the best left-handed pitcher in Rays history.
Both pitchers had storied careers in Tampa Bay. Both were part of the best years in Rays history, and both played a major role in the successes of each of the teams they played on.
On a personal note, I never enjoyed watching two pitchers work more than Price and Shields. As a 13-year-old kid, hearing the news of the David Price trade was devastating. I still have yet to find a pitcher I enjoy watching compete more than the way Price and Shields competed.
But, there must be a greatest of all time and this debate boils down to two sets of stats.
The first set of statistics is largely defined by one’s time with the Rays; stats such as games started, innings pitched, and strikeouts. This first group is dominated by James Shields.
The second group of stats is largely defined by one’s pitching success, production, dominance, or results over a given period of time; stats, such as WAR, ERA+, ERA, FIP, K/9, BB/9. This second group is dominated by David Price.
When deciding who the greatest pitcher in Tampa Bay Rays history is, it has to boil down to the results that each pitcher delivered during his time in Tampa. I have no doubt, that had Price been given the chance to pitch two more full seasons in Tampa Bay, he would have dominated both statistical groups. Which would put him atop the rankings of almost every conceivable pitching category in Rays franchise history.
But we can’t claim David Price is the best pitcher in Rays history because, had he made 60 more starts he would be leading in every conceivable category. What we can claim is that David Price was indeed the best pitcher in Rays history because his workload is so similar to James Shields and he was simply more productive than James Shields.
He had a better ERA+, ERA, FIP with the Rays than James Shields did. Each of these stats speak to just how good Price was on the mound regarding run prevention and pitch ability. This is not to say that Shields wasn’t good when it comes to run prevention and pitch ability, in fact he was, just not as good as Price was during his time here.
If you simplify it down to the years that they competed side by side (2009-2012), Price won more games (61-55), had a lower ERA (3.18 vs 3.85), a lower FIP (3.48 vs 3.76), and a higher ERA+ (123 vs 103).
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The bottom line is that David Price was the most dominant pitcher in Rays history and no pitcher in franchise history has ever put together a better group of seasons on the mound. David Price is without a doubt the best pitcher in Rays history. It is a shame that he wasn’t here longer.