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Entries in James Shields (8)

Monday
Sep262011

Curveball Key for Shields vs. Yankees

James Shields needs to live up to his "Big Game" billing tonight, as the Rays (one game behind Boston in the Wild Card standings) open a three-game set with the Yankees. Shields has shut down New York this year, posting a 27/7 K/BB ratio in 30 innings pitched while holding Bombers batters to a collective .222/.270/.343 line. A big reason for Shields' success against the majors' second-most potent offense is that he's using his curveball, a pitch that makes some Yankees look Cerrano-like, more often.

Shields has increased his curveball usage from 13 percent in 2010 to 21 percent this year. The bender,  dropping a couple more inches compared to last season, is holding hitters to a .199 Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA), well below the .253 league average. The Yankees, meanwhile, haven't hit curveballs well this season. It's the only pitch against which the club has a below-average team wOBA:

2011 Yankees Team wOBA by Pitch Type (league average in parentheses)

Fastball: .382 (.340)

Sinker: .345 (.343)

Cutter: .323 (.311)

Slider: .302 (.263)

Changeup: .299 (.290)

Splitter: .289 (.279)

Curveball: .248 (.253)

Here are the Yankee hitters who are scuffling against curveballs in 2011:

Brett Gardner, .117

Mark Teixeira, .190

Nick Swisher, .239

Curtis Granderson, .251

Alex Rodriguez, .256

Rodriguez (.344 wOBA vs. curves from 2008-2011) typically crushes curveballs, but that hasn't been the case this season. Gardner (.216), Teixeira (.263), Swisher (.226) and Granderson (.241) have long been jelly-legged against curves.  

Shields has tossed his curveball for a strike nearly 70 percent of the time against the Yankees, giving up just one extra-base hit in the process. Look for the pitch to play a prominent role tonight as Tampa continues its late-season playoff pursuit.

Friday
Sep162011

Verlander Versus Shields

A reader sends a question about Justin Verlander of the Tigers and James Shields of the Rays:

With all the talk about Verlander getting Cy Young and possibly MVP, I'm wondering how much better he's been than James Shields of the Rays.  Shields has a 2.70 ERA in a harder division (Verlander doesn't have to face explosive Red Sox and Yankees offenses as much as Shields), with 11 bullpen saving complete games, and 15 wins despite the anemic Rays offense.  Verlander has a gaudy amount of wins and 2.36 ERA in the AL Central, but could it be reasoned that Shields would have a better season if him and Verlander traded places?

It's a great question, but let me look at it another way.  When you look at the two pitchers in terms of opposition batting, Verlander is clearly superior.

 

2011VerlanderShields
IP 236 226.33
OBP 0.243 0.267
Slug 0.333 0.372
wOBA 0.252 0.277
BABIP 0.230 0.247
Strikeout % 0.265 0.227

 

Shields doesn't really save the bullpen any better than Verlander, since Justin pitched more innings this season.  On top of that, with the Tigers closer perfect on the season, there's no reason to avoid going to him in the ninth.  Verlander avoids the underbelly of the bullpen, and that's all a starter needs to do.

On top of that, Justin's averages are lower across the board.  Both pitchers record few hits on ball in play (BABIP), and that helps both tremendously.  One could argue, however, that Verlander received a few more lucky bounces.

That could be a big factor.  Verlander may be facing weaker hitters in the AL Central, or those hitters could just have suffered bad luck facing Verlander.  Let's look a little deeper, as PITCHf/x allows us to see in some ways the quality of their pitches:

 

2011VerlanderShields
Swing % 0.468 0.475
Pct Missed 0.237 0.246
% In Zone 0.428 0.515
Chase % 0.313 0.323
Called Strike % 0.359 0.327
Line Drive % 0.134 0.183

 

Note that this table paints a slightly different picture.  Shields gets more batters to swing, and more to miss when they do swing.  He tends to hit the strike zone more often than Verlander, and gets more batters to chase pitchers outside the strike zone.  In other words, in categories that measure the quality of the pitcher, Shields seems to be better.

That doesn't hold up everywhere, however.  Verlander gets more called strikes, meaning he tends to fool batters more.  A lower number of balls in play as line drives also implies Verlander fools batters, as that could lead to poor contact.

Or it could be that batters just can't see the ball.  Verlander's fastball averages 94.9 MPH, one of the fastest in the league.  Shields is down at 90.8, so he needs to be finer than Verlander.  My verdict is that both are aces, but in 2011, Verlander's ability to strike out more batters and catch them looking leads to his better numbers.  He more than deserves the Cy Young award.

 

Saturday
Aug272011

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.