James Shields, Line Drive Machine

If you watched Game 1, you know what was happening to James Shields. If you didn’t watch Game 1, you can figure out what was happening to James Shields, since he departed after 3+ and wasn’t exactly walking the world. James Shields got hit, and for that reason and others, the Royals lost, turning them into World Series underdogs. But I think just to drive the point home, it’s helpful to look at Shields’ full game log, plate appearance by plate appearance as recorded by MLB.com:

  1. line drive
  2. fly ball
  3. line drive
  4. line drive
  5. line drive
  6. line drive
  7. strikeout
  8. groundball
  9. line drive
  10. flyball
  11. line drive
  12. line drive
  13. line drive
  14. groundball
  15. walk
  16. line drive

Maybe you don’t know how many line drives are normal. That many line drives is not normal. That’s ten, out of 16 batters faced and 14 balls put in play. One of the non-line drives was a fly basically hit to the track. Here’s another of the non-line drives, from Hunter Pence in the fourth:


James Shields fooled no one, and that’s one of the things that can get a guy pulled as early as Shields was pulled. You’ve got wildness, you’ve got injury, you’ve got ejection, and you’ve got general ball-in-play ineffectiveness. Research, importantly, has shown that early struggles aren’t predictive for the later innings, but Shields was taken out at 71 pitches and the Royals were well behind anyway, so it’s not like leaving him in would’ve served a purpose.

Let’s have a little fun with Baseball Savant. You’re accustomed to seeing line-drive rate expressed as a percentage of all balls in play. Over there, we can see it expressed as a percentage of all pitches. Shields allowed ten line drives on 71 pitches, for a line-drive rate of 14.1%. Here are the highest marks so far in these playoffs:

Now here are the highest marks for 2014 overall, combining the playoffs and the season:

The reason we don’t talk about line drives so much is because the statistic itself is a wee bit subjective, which is bothersome, and also, line drives tend not to be very predictive. But by this measure, Shields just got knocked around like few others have been all season long, with the year’s second-highest liner rate. And anyone who watched would back up the idea that Shields was getting his pitches pounded. It wasn’t exactly a broadcast secret.

It was, for Shields himself, a career high. An issue is that the MLB.com definition of a line drive has changed through the years, but before Game 1, Shields had never posted a single-game liner rate north of 12.4%. That happened this past May, and that was Shields’ only career game north of 10%. Getting knocked around like that is uncommon for anyone, but in particular it’s uncommon for Shields, who you know mostly for being a good pitcher. Good pitchers aren’t supposed to be sucky pitchers.

Shields himself started to experiment, after struggling in the first inning. The second brought a long plate appearance against Brandon Crawford, and below, pay attention to where Shields set up for the fifth, sixth, and seventh pitches:




It’s very subtle, but in the top image, Shields is around the middle of the rubber. That’s been the norm, for him. In the next two images, Shields is on the first-base side, changing his release point by about a foot. How’d that work for him?


For those last two pitches of the at-bat, Salvador Perez set up inside, presumably working with Shields’ mound adjustment. Shields wound up throwing a fastball that missed to the other side of the plate, then he threw a fastball that missed up over the middle of the plate. Crawford’s ball wound up being caught, but that doesn’t mean Shields generated a good result.

You get a sense of the issue for Shields: he’s a location pitcher who’s been struggling with location. In Game 1, he got battered, but this has been a problem through the playoffs. Over the four starts, Shields has allowed 67 balls in play, and 43% of those have been line drives. One can only wonder how bad Shields’ playoff numbers might be were it not for some help from the defense and luck. On Tuesday, Buster Posey ran into an out at home, and the Royals caught four consecutive liners on the fly. In the previous start against the Orioles, Shields was helped by his outfield gloves, and the last batter he faced lined out with runners on the corners. Against the Angels, Shields was on the mound for Lorenzo Cain’s consecutive incredible catches with two men on. And all the way back in the wild-card game, Shields recorded four line outs, including one line-drive double play. The numbers are bad, and they could be worse.

The easy thing to say would be that Shields has been grooving too many pitches down the middle. That’s not untrue, but it’s not the whole story. Brooks Baseball lets us look at line-drive rate in the zone and out of the zone. Some information to consume:

Year When? In-Zone LD% Out-Of-Zone LD%
2013 Season 25% 20%
2014 Season 25% 20%
2014 Playoffs 39% 48%

Shields, in the playoffs, has actually posted a higher line-drive rate out of the strike zone. In the zone, hitters have slugged .628, against .501 during this past regular season. Out of the zone, hitters have slugged .450, against .288 during this past regular season. Shields, in other words, has thrown both worse strikes and worse balls. In Tuesday’s first inning, for example, Shields got Pablo Sandoval and Brandon Belt to go down out of the zone, but they both looked very comfortable in smoking the ball on a line. When Shields has been in the zone, he’s put pitches in hittable spots. When he’s gone out of the zone, he’s either missed badly or put pitches in still-hittable spots. Both his curve and changeup have let him down, and we’re so far past making fun of his nickname that it’s already old hat. The nickname exists today only ironically, and it’s remarkable how fast that’s happened, given that Shields has pitched in the playoffs in a Royals uniform but four times.

There’s no secret here: playoff James Shields has been extremely hittable. That’s how it was yesterday, and that’s how it was before. Some have indicated that Shields has been missing his fastball command. Others have suggested that he’s been missing his usual changeup command. So the most accurate thing to say is that Shields has just been missing his pitch command, and that’s always mechanical, and I don’t know if it’s injury or fatigue or other issue or nothing. I’m not going to pretend like I can predict what’ll happen in Game 5, if things get there. I can tell you the Royals would say they’re still confident in Shields, and I can say that, privately, they’ve never been more uncertain. But it’s not like they have a wealth of alternatives.

For the Royals in October, James Shields has gone missing. It was easier to overlook the first three times, as the Royals scored 25 runs. Problems are a lot more visible when you score only once. The good news is Shields isn’t the whole reason the Royals lost on Tuesday. The bad news is there were a lot of reasons. Shields just happened to be the biggest.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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“I can tell you the Royals would say they’re still confident in Shields, and I can say that, privately, they’ve never been more uncertain. But it’s not like they have a wealth of alternatives.”

They don’t need a wealth of alternatives, they only need one. And that one is Danny Duffy. At this point, with as poorly as Shields has pitched over the past month plus, I’d rather roll the dice with Duffy in Game 5.


As a Royals fan who has watched Danny Duffy a lot, I’m not really sure you should have that much confidence in him either.


why not roll the dice with Duffy instead of Guthrie or Vargas instead?

Marsupial Jones
Marsupial Jones

Honestly, I think I’d rather go with Vargas then Duffy. Vargas may not have the cieling of Duffy seems to be more consistent.Duffy is a lot more of a coin flip/potential meltdown. But that’s just me.


That’s a great sentiment and all, but it’s so far outside the realm of possibility that it’s not even worth discussing.
Ned Yost would never take James Shields out of the rotation for HIS FINAL START AS A ROYAL. Actually, NO MANAGER WOULD DO THAT. Not Bochy, nobody.


I should add that the real question is how long do you ride with Shields in Game 5?
I think Yost was about as quick as you could expect a manager to be last night, and I would imagine that maybe he’ll have an even shorter leash next week. What I worry about as a Royals fan is that Shields pitches the same, but the results are a little different – maybe the offense scores some, and the defense bails him out a bit more – and so ol’ Ned looks at the scoreboard in the 3rd and says “It’s 3-3, I’ll give Jim another inning” and then it all falls apart.

(the other) Walter
(the other) Walter

Which begs the question – how many $$ in free agency will he lose, if he doesn’t “nail it” in his next start? Maybe even enough for KC to re-sign him?