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James Shields, Strikeout Artist

James Shields struck out 12 Blue Jays last night, completing his MLB-best 10th game of the year and joining CC Sabathia (2008) as just the second pitcher this millennium to finish what he started 10 times in a single season. Big Game is rocking a career-best 3.36 Fielding Independent ERA (FIP), and a major reason is that he's missing bats like never before by using his changeup more in two-strike counts.

At first blush, Shields' K rate this season (8.6 per nine innings pitched) looks similar to his 8.3 K/9 mark from 2010. But in this case, K/9 is misleading. Shields suffered from a .341 batting average on balls in play last year, meaning that he faced considerably more hitters per inning and had more chances to rack up Ks. In 2011, his BABIP has dipped to .267.

So, he's facing fewer hitters per inning (about 3.9 in 2011, compared to 4.4 in 2010) yet getting more strikeouts. Thus, his strikeouts per plate appearance total has climbed from 19-20 percent in past years to 24.3 percent this season, which ranks fourth among AL starters behind Brandon Morrow, Justin Verlander and Michael Pineda.

Shields owes his surging K/PA rate to more darting, mid-80s changeups in two-strike situations. From 2008-2010, he used his change about 40 percent of the time with two strikes on the hitter. He's going to the pitch 47 percent of the time with two strikes in 2011, getting more chases and misses in the process. Look at the location of Shields' changeup with two strikes in past years, compared to 2011:

Location of Shields' changeup with two strikes, 2008-2011

Location of Shields' changeup with two strikes, 2011He's burying more of those two-strike changeups below the knees, throwing just 32 percent of them in the strike zone (37 percent from '08 to '10). And hitters just can't resist, chasing 53 percent of those two-strike off-speed pitches tossed off the plate (51 percent from '08 to '10).

Batters are making less contact with those two-strike changeups below the knees, too:

Hitters' contact rate by pitch location vs. Shields' two-strike changeups, 2008-2010         Hitters' contact rate by pitch location vs. Shields' two-strike changeups, 2011 Shields got a miss with his changeup in two-strike counts slightly less than 35 percent of the time that hitters offered at it from 2008-2010, and 42 percent of the time in 2011. The average two-strike miss rate for a changeup is 28 percent.

By relying more heavily upon his best pitch when hitters are against the ropes, Shields is enjoying his best season yet. He likely won't sniff the Cy Young Award, but he's worthy of down-ballot consideration.


Throwing the Ball By Hamilton

Josh Hamilton of the Texas Rangers suffered an offensive downturn in 2011 compared to 2010.  His .359/.411/.633 slash line from 2010 dropped to .298/.345/.520 in 2011.  The change in the way pitchers approach him offers an idea of why.  The average pitch Josh saw in 2010 wasn't very fast:

Josh Hamilton, pitch velocity, 2010.The pitches above averaged 85.6 MPH.  In 2011, Josh sees a lot more yellow:

Josh Hamilton, pitch velocity, 2011.The average velocity isn't that much greater, 86.6 MPH.  Pitchers aren't afraid to throw the high fastball to Josh, and they are getting him to chase those.  In 2010, he did go out of the strike zone up a bit:

Josh Hamilton, swing rate, 2010.In 2011, he can't lay off the high pitch:

Josh Hamilton, swing rate, 2011.In 2010, Josh hit .338/.455/.688 on high pitches, but he was disciplined high.  In 2011, with the selectivity gone, he's at .253/.387/.480. 

It strikes me that Josh lost a little bat speed.  That allows pitchers to throw him high fastballs, which give him even less time to swing.  This may not be a slump, but opponents exploiting a new weakness.


Felipe Paulino's Puzzling Fastball

Perhaps no pitcher in recent memory has experienced a larger dichotomy between process and results than Kansas City's Felipe Paulino. The 6-foot-2, 270 right-hander has a career 4.24 fielding independent ERA (FIP) in over 300 innings pitched, suggesting he's a decent arm possibly a few tweaks away from being an asset, but his actual 5.35 ERA explains why the former Astro and Rockie is pitching for his third club since 2010. In fact, the 1.11 run difference between Paulino's FIP and ERA since 2007 is the largest in baseball among pitchers tossing 300+ innings, per Fangraphs.

Paulino's peripherals and ERA diverge so much due to his career .342 batting average on balls in play, which is the highest among MLB pitchers with 300+ innings since 2007. His fastball in particular has been a problem, with a whopping .381 BABIP since 2008 (the first year for which we have data).

What makes that so surprising is that Paulino's fastball is what made him a touted prospect in the first place. Here's a snippet from Baseball America's 2008 Prospect Handbook:

Houston has seen Paulino's fastball hit 100 MPH, while other clubs have had him up to 102. Paulino has consistently gotten better in making the transition from thrower to pitcher. He's improved at maintaining his athletic delivery and locating his fastball.

Paulino still pop catchers' mitts, as his fastball has averaged 95.2 MPH and topped out at just under 100 MPH in the majors. Yet hitters turn into Ted Williams when they put the ball in play. Take a look at Paulino's in-play average (including home runs) by pitch location with his fastball, compared to the league average for right-handers:

Paulino's in-play average by location with his fastball, 2008-2011Fastball In-play average by pitch location for RHPs, 2008-2011

Pretty much anything not high and at the corners has been smoked. Paulino's fastball location doesn't look all that different from that of the average righty, though he doesn't throw as many pitches in to righties...

Frequency of Paulino's fastball location, 2008-2011

Frequency of fastball location for RHPs, 2008-2011

Fastballs with similar velocity and movement to Paulino's generally don't get hit hard. Since 2008, fastballs thrown at 95+ MPH with 6-9 inches of tailing action in on righties (away from lefties) and 9 inches to a foot of vertical break have a .285 BABIP, which is considerably lower than the .302 overall BABIP for fastballs over that time. And the sample of fastballs similar to Paulino's has 14,000-15,000 pitches, so it's not a small sample size issue. Consider me stumped.