After watching James Shields pitch for the Tampa Bay Rays last night against the Yankees, something seemed wrong with the pitcher. At no point last year did Shields seem to be so vulnerable. But then again, last year was such an improvement over what Shields did in 2009 and 2010, is this just Shields reverting to form after a career season or just a bad stretch? He is 6-4, which is nothing to sneeze at. And his FIP is 3.82, some forty points below his ERA of 4.27. But he does not look like the same guy. And so some time was spent pondering Shields this morning. The more his numbers were looked at, the more confusing they seemed.
First, Shields has not lost any velocity. So we can rule out health problems. In fact, his velocity is up across the board to the highest levels of his career. He still induces a lot of batters to swing at pitches out of the strike zone. His ability to do that this year is at 34.2 percent, again the highest of his career. His batted balls have changed. He is getting batters to hit the ball on the ground at levels we've never seen from him before. After averaging a 1.22 ground ball to fly ball ratio for his career, that number is up to 2.57 this season, quite remarkable. So what is it then?
For one, the homers are back. Of all the things Shields did well last season, limiting homers was one of them. After allowing homers per nine innings of 1.19 and 1.50 respectively in 2009 and 2010, that rate plunged to 0.94 last season. But the homers are back and his current rate is 1.15 per nine. His BABIP is also much higher than last year. Last season, his BABIP was .258, the lowest of his career. This year, it is more normalized at .317, a little unlucky perhaps, but not overly so.
After watching him last night, there were a few conclusions that might be valid. For one, his defense was terrible last night. His infield really let him down. Without Evan Longoria, the Rays are moving people around and it is not working. Certainly if Elliot Johnson does not make those two errors in the first inning, the night might have been different. But Shields did load the bases to get into that situation in the first place.
Something strange was noticed. Shields has a totally different windup routine when there is a runner on first and when there are runners on second or third. When a runner is on first, he bends way low much like what Mariano Rivera does. But he doesn't do that when men are on second and third. Has this always been the case? Would two different windup routines be hard to maintain as far as mechanics are concerned? Good question.
Shields' walks are up slightly this season. So mechanics might be part of the problem. The analysts on the broadcast kept mentioning him falling off the mound more than usual. So that might be the reason Shields is struggling. But this observer has one more possibility. His catcher.
If you watched the broadcast last night, Shields seemed to be at odds with Jose Molina all night. The two had several conferences and Shields looked frustrated at times with his catcher. Last season, Shields threw to Kelly Shoppach 22 times and to John Jaso nine times. He threw to two other catchers a total of three times. Shields strikeout to walk ratio for Shoppach and Jaso were a exactly the same at 3.43, which is very good. His same rate those other three times was 2.0.
Flash forward to this season. Both of those guys are gone and now he throws to Jose Molina, Chris Gimenez (now in the minors) and Jose Lobaton. In three games with Gimenez, his strikeout to walk ratio was 7.67. In two games with Lobaton, his rate is 6.50. But in seven games with Molina, that rate plunges all the way down to 1.90.
To be fair, Shields has a lower ERA with Molina behind the plate. He also has a better OPS against than with Gimenez. But that 1.90 rate seems to speak of a pitcher who is not comfortable with a certain catcher and certainly, the dynamics of last night's game seemed to bear that out.
Whatever the case, James Shields is not the same pitcher he was a year ago. Last year, he completed eleven games and threw four shutouts. This year, he has not been able to do either event. The question remains if last year was a career year and if this is more the real James Shields. We have two-thirds of a season to figure it out.