Watching James Shields of the Tampa Bay Rays this year after watching him last year is a night and day experience. He simply doesn't look like the same pitcher. Last year, his body language was different. He often looked beaten and frustrated. This year, there is a toughness in his demeanor and the results certainly show a difference. Daniel Aubain over at COSFBA asked an open-ended question as to why Shields is so much more effective this year than last. To this observer, the difference seems to be that he's more aggressive early in the count in the strike zone.
Last year was a brutal season for Shields. He gave up 34 homers and his ERA ballooned to 5.18. Both totals were among the lead leaders for starters. He also had an extraordinarily high BABIP of .341. So when he wasn't giving up homers, his batted balls found holes at an alarming rate. So what's the different this year? How has he gone from one of the worst starting pitchers in baseball to a guy that's thrown four shutouts and eight complete games to go along with a sparkly 2.80 ERA?
With a quick glance, it appears that much is the same as it's always been for Shields. His line drive, ground ball and fly ball percentages nearly mirror his career norms. His K/9 rate is up nicely, but not dramatically. His walk rate is down nicely, but again, not dramatically. So what's the difference? Again, that difference seems to be how he is controlling the at bats instead of allowing the batters to do so. What does that mean? Let's take a look.
James Shields is throwing more first pitch strikes. His percentage of 64.3 percent is the highest of his career. But, for those looking along, it's not dramatically higher than the past. Last year was 62.1 percent. Big deal right? Well, it is a big deal if you follow that up with strikes to put batters in defensive counts.
Last year, Shields was in an 0-1 count 431 times as compared to this year's 344 times. Last year, he started a batter off 343 times at 1-0 compared to this year's 251. That's a 1.36 ratio compared to last year's 1.25 ratio. But it doesn't stop there. Last year he was in 2-0 counts 110 times and 0-2 counts 170 times. This year, he's had 2-0 counts 94 times and 0-2 counts 154 times. This year's ratio of 2-0 counts compared to 0-2 counts is 1.638 compared to 1.545 last year. And it continues deeper into the count. Last year, he had 231 1-2 counts. This year, that figure is already up to 197. Last year, 168 of his counts got to 2-1. This year, that figure is only 109. The ratio difference here is the key. His ratio of 1-2 counts to 2-1 counts last year was 1.375. This year, it's at 1.807!
What does that mean exactly? It means that Shields has the batter more often in counts that favor Shields instead of the other way around. Because of his effectiveness at getting ahead in the count, his strikeout rate is higher, he is throwing more curves and change ups and he easily has a higher swing rate outside the strike zone than his career norm. He's inducing more infield pop ups and is producing less contact on strikes too.
Add all that up and you have a more aggressive pitcher, which has to lead to lower pitch counts, deeper games, less homers and a lot more confidence. This author had read somewhere that Joe Maddon was responsible for this consciousness of getting ahead of batters, but can't find the source. It makes sense though as Maddon would know these kinds of numbers. Whatever the case, Shields is controlling his own fate this year rather than allowing the batter dictate how his games on the hill will go.