Coming off a career-year, James Shields has picked up where he left off in 2011. Four turns into the 2012 season, the 30-year-old is 3-0 with a 2.76 ERA, including a rough Opening Day start in which he was tagged for six earned runs in five innings against the New York Yankees (no decision). His advanced metrics also suggest his peripheral performance has been stellar.
Since Opening Day, Shields has allowed just three earned runs in 24.1 innings. He has pitched at least eight innings in each of those three games and has lasted seven or more innings in 18 of his last 34 starts. In addition to the endurance, he has allowed one run or less in 14 of his last 24 starts including each of the last two.
Much like the Tampa Bay Rays as an organization, Shields has to go about his business in “another way.” Without the pure stuff of David Price or Matt Moore, the right-hander has to pitch smarter and remain a step ahead of the competition in order to remain successful in the offensive natured American League.
Last year, Shields was the master of pitching backwards or Pitching 2.0 as Rays’ manager Joe Maddon called it. He greatly increased the use of his curveball from 2011 to 2012, and went to his signature changeup more than he had in recent seasons. Not only did he increase of his secondary pitches, but did so in fastball counts to keep hitters off balance. Given the fact that scouting reports get around the league quickly, it would be unlikely that Shields would be able to attack hitters in 2012 as he did in 2011 and have the same amount of success.
Knowing this, Shields has gone about things in yet another way in 2012. Call it Shields 2.5, if you will. According to Brooksbaseball.net, 28% of his pitches thus far have been cutters. For context, his career usage for the pitch is around 18%. He has maintained a high percentage of changeups and curveballs, but the cut-fastball has been his heater of choice this season, outpacing the four-seamer.
When things were going bad in 2010, it appeared at times that Shields went to the cutter too often in lieu of his changeup or curveball. That said, this is not the same pitch we are seeing now. In addition to changes in the pitches movement, the 2012 cutter has been thrown a lot harder than the previous version. Prior to this season, the cutter has been an 86-MPH pitch for Shields. In 2012, it is coming in at 90 MPH.
The new mix of pitches has also led to a change in batted-ball results. Looking at his career numbers, Shields has leaned toward the groundball side of things (44%). Meanwhile, in 2012, he is getting grounders at a 58% clip. Of course, we are dealing with a small sample size at this point in the season, and a groundball rate near 60% is usually reserved for sinkerballers, but even a small increase in grounders would mean fewer opportunities for home runs. Looking at the breakdown, he has induced 51 groundballs; 37 have come on a changeup, cutter, or curveball.
Against the Minnesota Twins on Saturday, Shields allowed just one run while recording 24 outs. He did so by keeping Minnesota’s offense off-balance. Twins’ manager Ron Gardenhire said Shields “has all the pitches, great fastball, changes speeds, great changeup, cuts the ball in, moves it in and off the plate.” “He’s just a pitcher, an athletic guy out on the mound and a very good pitcher.” I don’t know about the great fastball part, but Gardenhire was right. James Shields is a very good pitcher; one that continues adapt at a rate that is a step ahead of the competition.