Yesterday, James Shields tossed his second-consecutive complete game, this one a 4-hit shutout of the Blue Jays. And now, one season after posting a 5.18 ERA (although he really wasn’t that bad), Shields looks as good as ever.
But can he keep it up? To answer that, let’s take a look at what is different.
The biggest difference is longball. Last year Shields led the American League with 34 home runs allowed, which translated to one every 6.0 innings. This year he has only allowed three home runs in 38.1 innings. If he can maintain that pace (1 every 12.1 ip), that would be the best rate of his career.
But at the same time, about 55 percent of the time opponents put the ball in play it is a flyball. That is down slightly from 2010, but with only 7.0 percent of his flyballs ending up over the fence, this suggests that he may have been a little lucky so far (his career rate is 11.5%). His Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), which is a full-run higher (3.44) than his ERA (2.35) seems to corroborate this.
OK, the results are different, but has Shields changed his approach? Here is where we start to see some key differences from the 2010 Shields. Below is a look at his pitch selection so far this season as compared to 2010 (data via TexasLeaguers.com)…
It has only been five starts, but this is not the same James Shields. So far in 2011, his fastball use is down, and he is using his changeup and curveball more. In the case of his curveball, he is using it a lot more.
This is significant because in 2010, Shields had the worst fastball in Major League Baseball. That may sound like hyperbole, but it is not. One stat showed that Shields’ fastball was worth -1.62 runs per 100 pitches in 2010. That was the worst mark in baseball.
So it only seems logical that a pitcher would want to throw a bad pitch less often. But in the case of Shields, there appears to a secondary benefit.
Now that he is throwing fewer fastballs, those pitches have actually become more effective. This year, Shields’ fastballs are only costing him -0.01 runs per 100 pitches (0.00 is average). Still just mediocre, but his fastball is no longer a liability.
This doesn’t necessarily guarantee that Shields will continue to act like the Ace that we always hoped he could be. But it does show a change in his approach. And so far, that approach is working.