The pitcher that was once loved as “Big Game James,” has quickly become one many fans want to see traded after his 2010 struggles. Will he improve in 2011 or will it be another year of ill-timed souvenirs to the fans in the outfield seats?
Shields’ pitcher card (what he threw and when)
Hanselman’s excellent breakdown from earlier today
Unlucky is the term that first comes to mind when I look at what Shields did in 2010. His FIP last season was 4.24, which looks a lot better than that 5.18 ERA. After three straight seasons of a BABIP in the normal range of .290-.320, he balloons up to .354 last season. That number stands out when you consider the other starting pitchers on the staff were all .279-.281 last season. After three straight seasons of a normalized home run to fly ball ratio, he 14% of his flyball left the yard last season and most seemed to come at the worst time possible if you watched all of his starts. Simply put, Shields had the imperfect statistical storm last season as he was hit from all sides by misfortune.
Despite that, he still had one of the better strikeout rates in the league, one of the better walk rates in the league, and one of the best strikeout to walk rates in the American League. It bears repeating that Shields had the highest ERA of any pitcher since 1950 that had a strikeout rate, a walk rate, and a strikeout to walk ratio as strong as Shields had last season. Skills wise, Shields is as strong as ever but he was definitely more hittable in 2010 than he was in year’s past. R.J. Anderson highlighted more of this back in October over at TheProcessReport.
The projections are all over the place. They all like him to drop in his strikeout rate but also see his home run rate coming down. Ron Shandler and Bill James, two of the best in the business of prognostication, like Shields to have a 2009-like season while the others are hedging their bets in between 2009 and 2010. Hanselman addressed some of Shields’ issues last season in his colorful charts and addressing his pitch selection would be a great place to start for him.
If I were Jim Hickey, I’d scrap that cut fastball which has been a terrible pitch for him and showcase his curveball more to righties. I’d also encourage him to give in to some batters and put them on base rather than trying to make the perfect pitch. Shields had a major problem with his body language last season when things did not go his way and it would affect how he threw his pitches. He has a great defense behind him and if he’s down 3-1 in the count to a slugger, there is nothing wrong with putting them on base rather than throwing his fastball 50% of the time as his player card indicates. Shields’ fastball is only better than his cutter so his over-reliance upon it when he is behind in the count makes a bad situation worse.
I also raised the issue several times during the season that I thought rookie catcher John Jaso was part of Shields’ problems. Last season, Shields was hit harder than any other pitcher throwing to Jaso but did better when throwing to Shoppach. I believe the year of experience will help Jaso in this regard because the Rays believe in letting catchers call their own games I’m certain that Jaso and Shields are going to see some of this same data that Hanselman outlined earlier today given how data-driven this organization is.
While Shields may not be the staff ace any longer, he still maintains the ability to be one of the better pitchers on this staff. He still owns one of the nastiest pitches in the American League and struck out at least ten batters in a start five different times last season. I believe lady luck swings back his way some in 2011 and he will win his way back into the hearts of the disgruntled fans that were quite vocal throughout last season and throughout the ALDS.