After pitching so well in 2011, you would think that James Shields wouldn’t want to mess with what worked. But for some reason he has completely changed the way he is pitching to batters, and so far, it has not been for the better.
Below we are going to look at what is different about Shields this season, and why there is hope that he can get better.
Has Shields been as bad as it seems?
Shields’ 2.82 ERA a year ago is now 4.39. And his strikeout-to-walk ratio, 3.46 last year, is now at a career-low 3.18. But things are not that bad as his ERA suggests. His 3.89 FIP is up from 2011 (3.42), but is in line with what his numbers typically look like (3.82-4.02 in ’07-’09).
One reason for the difference between ERA and FIP is that opponents are hitting .337 when they hit the ball in play (BABIP). That is the second-highest mark of his career after a career-low in 2011 (.258). So in part, hitters may just be getting lucky. Or maybe they are taking a different approach and having success.
What happened to Shields’ dominating changeup?
But maybe more importantly for Shields, his most important weapon is his changeup. And while his changeup was awesome in 2011 (1.82 runs below average per 100 pitches), it has been only slightly better than average in 2012 (0.33).
One big difference is how often Shields is throwing the changeup…
What is interesting about this is how Shields’ FIP appeared to be correlated with how often he threw his changeup, up until this season. That is, from 2007 to 2010, his changeup use decreased, and his FIP increased. And when he started throwing his changeup more often last year, his FIP went way down.
This year he is throwing it even more than last year, but his FIP has gone up. So maybe he has reached a point of diminishing returns. That is, maybe 23% is too few and 30% is too much and his ideal number is somewhere in between.
Is Shields throwing his changeup differently?
Not only is he throwing the changeup more often, he is throwing it harder…
His average changeup this season is up to 84.8 mph. If he is throwing the change too hard, there are two potential problems:
1) There is not enough difference between his fastball and his changeup.
This does not appear to be the case as his fastball is actually being thrown harder this season also. In fact, there was a 7.0 mph differential between the two pitches in 2011. This year it is nearly identical at 6.9 mph
2) The changeup is not sinking as much.
This time, there is a difference, with his 2012 changeup sinking ~0.8 inches less than last year (3.79 vs 2.96 pitchf/x). But that does not seem like it would be enough to account for Shields’ stats this season.
Why has Shields stopped throwing his fastball?
Interestingly, while the changeup use is up ~3% this season, his fastball use is way down, from 35.3% last year, to 26.6% this season. So it is not just the changeup that Shields is throwing more, it is all of his off-speed pitches, especially his slider (11.2% in ’11 to 17.1% in ’12) which is just not a very good pitch.
Of course, the fastball has never been a very good pitch for Shields, so it would make sense to minimize its use. And one benefit of throwing more off-speed pitches has been that Shields is inducing more groundballs than ever. That is good because Shields tends to give up a lot of home runs (then again, this season the defense has been horrible behind him. So maybe he picked a bad year to induce more grounders).
But at the same time, the off-speed pitches, especially the changeup, need the fastball to be effective. And the disappearance of his fastball may be a problem.
Why did Shields change the approach that worked so well in 2011?
Shields’ changeup is not nearly as effective this year. And the biggest red flags are that he may be throwing his changeup too much, and maybe he is not throwing the fastball enough.
Is this a definitive analysis? Hardly. But one has to wonder why Shields changed his approach after such a successful 2011 season.
And if he is going to return to his dominating ways, Shields needs to find away to get his changeup back to dominating levels. If not, he will continue to be a slightly above-average pitcher.