After a magnificent 2011 that saw James Shields transform from innings eater to a bona fide ace, this year’s version leaves much to be desired. With the first half over, Tampa Bay is being burnt by Shields to the tune of a 4.17 ERA and 1.42 WHIP. While regression was an obvious call for the staff’s number 2 guy, it was a surprise that the year started off so poorly. So, why leave hope for a guy sitting in the 4s? The answer is simply, bad luck.
The real "Big Games James" is a cross between his amazing 2011 and his subpar 2012. He won’t repeat the 2.82 ERA and 1.04 WHIP of last year, but he will provide a boost to savvy owners who keep or buy-low. Considering that his only season below a 3.5 ERA was last year, it was expectant that a repeat wouldn’t surface. While, the end of the season will not represent the improvements that are incoming, Shields can be the difference between winning the wild card or winning the division. This year’s version of Shields isn’t too far off from the guy who was third-place in CY voting. His K-rate is steady at 8.27 K/9. It’s above league average and on-par with his career numbers. His walks are not an issue, either. The 2.58 BB% is close to normal ratios and cannot be the culprit behind the high WHIP or even the high ERA. He isn’t even allowing more HRs or stranding less runners – James Shields is just having some really bad luck.
The one statistic that stands out is his glaring BABIP. The batted balls in play are routinely becoming hits instead of outs, and therefore his rate of .335 is above league and career averages. If the percentage normalizes and outs are actually recorded instead of hits, Shields should see an automatic change in ERA and WHIP. Since walks and Ks are not the problem, the investment will pay off. Already, his xFIP stands at a healthy 3.44 – which is more in-line with the numbers expected of an ace.
The lone factor standing in the way of change for Shields is his pitch changes. A sudden decrease in efficiency for all his pitches is changing the percentages of throwing frequency. He’s throwing the fastball less and increasing the amount of cutters and change-ups. As a result, his fastball efficiency dropped to -8.7, the cutter is -4.7, and the curveball is -1.1. Even his best pitch, the change-up dropped to 4.4 after an amazing 17.7 efficiency rating last year. The repertoire needs to be fixed and normalized for the complete turn-around and only the Rays’ staff (and Shields) can do it.
While a change is coming, it is not guaranteed. The bad luck may go away and if it does, the investment for Shields will pay off in a great way. He already boosts a strong K-rate and low BBs, add in the normalized ERA and WHIP and a staff anchor is what you get.