James Shields has had a career year, and at least some of the credit goes to Jim Hickey. The Rays pitching coach has played a hands-on role in the right-hander’s success, which has been fueled, in part, by adjustments to his pitch selection. Hickey sat down to discuss those changes, as well as Shields’ BABiP and complete games, earlier this month.
Rays manager Joe Maddon also weighed in on Shields. His comments follow the interview with Hickey.
David Laurila: Much of the attention James Shields has received this year has come as a result of his complete games. Are other, equally important, things being overlooked?
Jim Hickey: I’m not sure if they are or not, but he certainly deserves credit for a lot of other things. The complete games are kind of sexy and are calling a lot of attention to him, but he’s been an extremely solid, and productive, Major League starter since the beginning of the 2007 season. He takes the ball every fifth day and he pitches 215-220 innings every year. He gives you a chance to win the ballgame virtually every time out, and that’s really all that we can ask.
I was looking at his stats the other day and what stunned me was that James has allowed 50 fewer hits than innings pitched this year. It is about 170 compared to 220. That’s really something. He’s always been a guy who has allowed hits, and home runs, because he’s always in the strike zone and his stuff isn’t overpowering. I would say that he had 35 more hits than innings pitched last year, or maybe a little bit more, and to have an 80-hit swing is really impressive.
DL: I want to get back to his hits allowed, but first, you just referred to complete games as a “sexy” statistic. Has the game involved to a point where that‘s a fitting description?
JH: In a way, it has. They’ve become so uncommon that we really haven’t been putting a lot of importance on them. Not that they haven’t always been important, but you’ve got guys making a lot of money who are basically paid to pitch into the seventh or eighth inning. The fact that you don’t accumulate them isn’t really detrimental. So yes, even though they’re important, they’ve become a bit of a novelty.
Complete games allow you do a lot of things. We can use our bullpen differently on the days before Shields pitches, with the thought that he’s going to go deep into the ballgame. We can also use our bullpen differently on the day after he pitches, because he did go deep. That’s extremely important, especially with him throwing 10 or 12 complete games.
DL: Joe Maddon has obviously not automatically gone to his closer, for the ninth inning, in Shields’ starts. Why?
JH: Well, James is pretty pitch-efficient overall, which you have to be. But Joe has also allowed him to go [out for the ninth inning]. A year ago, he was reluctant to have him out there in that 105-110-pitch range. It’s kind of a two-way street. James has basically been given the chance, by Joe, and James has basically showed that he can do that, and be productive. He has Joe’s trust now. There have been a number of ballgames this year where he has gone out for the ninth inning with 108 or 110 pitches, and I don’t think that would have happened in years past.
Prior to the season, we have our meetings and one of James’s goals was to pitch a complete game or two. Joe basically promised James that he would give him that opportunity. He pitched a couple of complete games early in the season, and all of a sudden he had a taste of it. He liked it, and we liked it as well.
DL: Getting back to the number of hits allowed, his BABiP is .261, which is 81 points lower than last season. Is that sustainable?
JH: Well, first of all, the reason it’s down 81 points is that it was up considerably last year. I realize the .261 is down also, and that it’s about 40 points below league average, but do I think it’s sustainable? I do, because I don’t see anything going on out there that’s really out of the ordinary. For one thing, we have a tremendous defensive club and that certainly helps. When balls are put into play, I think we have a better chance of retiring the hitter than most other teams do.
DL: According to PitchFX, Shields is throwing a lot fewer two-seamers this year. Why is that?
JH: In 2007, my first year with him, he had a very good year. I think he had about 215 innings, 200 hits [allowed] and 180 strikeouts, and he never threw a two-seamer. He didn’t even possess a two-seamer. He threw a four-seam fastball, a changeup, and an occasional curveball. But he could take the four-seamer and it would run. It didn’t quite sink like a two-seamer, but it would run like one. So yes, he’s back to throwing fewer two-seam fastballs and more four-seam fastballs. He’s spotting up well and he’s picking his spots with the two-seamer.
DL: Per PitchFX, 28 percent of his pitches this year are changeups. Is that a remarkably high number for a pitcher?
JH: It’s a remarkably high figure for a conventional pitcher. It’s not for James. If you look at Jeremy Hellickson, he would have a high rate of changeups also. So yes, it’s high for a conventional starting pitcher, but not for those two guys. That’s their biggest… I won’t say it’s their best pitch, because I think everybody’s best pitch is their fastball, but it’s certainly their put-away pitch, and a pitch that they can throw in any count. And when I say any count, I mean any count. I’ve seen Hellickson throw 3-0, 3-1, 3-2 changeups. I don’t think there are six pitchers in baseball that would do that.
DL: Shields has thrown a high number of first-pitch curveballs [25 percent] this year. Was that a plan coming into the season?
JH: It’s something we were certainly aware of. He has a very, very good curveball, and a very effective curveball. At times he’s gotten away from throwing his curveball, and this year he has thrown it a bunch. And not only on the first pitch. It’s a really good pitch for him.
It wasn’t dictated that he’d throw it more. I don’t believe that you can dictate like that, but it was discussed. We were aware of [his numbers on the first pitch], so it was just a part of his plan going in.
DL: Shields has only thrown a curveball 5 percent of the time on 3-2 counts. Why so few in those situations?
JH: Part of the issue last year was that he was so predictable on the first pitch and in fastball counts. It was first-pitch fastballs and fastballs on 2-0, 3-1, 3-2. He was throwing a high rate of fastballs and that was part of his problem. Changing that up was definitely part of the solution.
He may only be throwing 5 percent curveballs on 3-2, but what about changeups? I would say that’s his highest rate for off-speed pitches. He’s got so many weapons. He’s got the four-seam fastball, the two-seamer, the cutter, the changeup, the curveball, and a conventional slider for when he faces right-handed hitters. That’s the reason his percentage of curveballs on 3-2 is lower. The curveball is also probably the off-speed pitch he throws in the zone, for a called strike, at the lowest rate. I think that would be true for everybody.
DL: Another notable number is 18 percent fastballs on 1-1 counts. That seems low given the difference between 2-1 and 1-2.
JH: I would agree with that; 18 percent fastballs in 1-1 counts is low. But the big number is how many times you get to 1-2 versus 2-1, and James does a good job of getting to 1-2. As a matter of fact, he does a great job. That’s one of the reasons that he’s as good as he is. And when he does fall behind, he’s not just coming with, “Fastball, here it is,” which gets you in trouble. He might throw a two-seamer, a cutter, a changeup, or even a curveball.
DL: Just how involved is the catcher in Shields’ pitch selection?
JH: Well, he’s obviously involved, but the catcher is basically a suggester. Our rule of thumb is that if the catcher wants a pitch, he puts the pitch down, and if he’s really convicted to it, and the pitcher shakes, he puts it down again. If the pitcher shakes again, they both know there should be a conference. Right now, we’re pretty much on the same page.
Earlier, especially with [John] Jaso, you’d watch the pitcher and there was a lot of, “No, no, no.” Now there is much less of that. So the catcher is a big part of it, but in the end, he just suggests what to throw and the pitcher is responsible.
DL: Pitchers are always being told to keep the ball down. Against more than a few hitters, shouldn’t they be working up in the zone?
JH: Oh, absolutely. There’s no question about it. You have to pitch up and you have to practice pitching up. You can’t just… When we do bullpens, it’s not just glove side down, boom, boom. That said, glove side down is a great place to be, because I feel that if you can be glove side down, then you can get to up, and you can get to in. That’s versus… Say you’re stuck up and in. Then it‘s difficult to get to glove side down. But absolutely, you have to pitch up. Against a lineup like Boston’s, there are three or four guys where you should be pitching up — you should be pitching up by design.
DL: Any final thoughts?
JH: James caught a lot of grief last year, as though it was a heinous type of season. It wasn’t a good year, but like we talked about earlier, he allowed a high batting average on balls in play, which I think was a little bit of bad fortune. He also allowed about 35 home runs, and he generally allows 25 or 28, so there were eight or 10 more than usual. In one ballgame, in Toronto, he allowed six, so he had a couple of really bad games. He had some real clunkers — a 10-run game here and a 10-run game there — and he took grief for those. But in between, he was giving us a chance to win pretty much every time out there. If he took the mound 34 times, he gave us chance to win 27 times. His numbers were just skewed a little bit.
This year I think we’re seeing the real James Shields, and the real James Shields at the top of his game. Last year the hits and homers went up, and at a pretty high rate, but I think that was the aberration, not what’s going on right now. Will he throw 10-12 complete games next year? I’d probably say no, but then again, you never know. James has been a good, and consistent, pitcher.
Joe Maddon on the role he plays with Shields’ pitch selection: “I’ll make an observation and bring it to Hick, and then he’ll do the research with the guys in the front office. A lot of my in-game stuff is from more of the old-school perspective — observations and things I learned growing up in the game. We try to work that into the more techno stuff that is out there now, so I’ll give my suggestion to somebody and they’ll run with it. That’s all Hick and the boys upstairs pinpointing the specific pitch selection that Shields is going through.”
On Shields throwing a large number of breaking pitches: “That’s just a lot of data and research. I have liked his curveball. I’ve been on him for a couple of years to throw his curveball more, because he has a really good one. I think it’s a very underrated pitch. I feel the same way about Hellickson. I think these guys with good changeups, that have another good pitch, like a curveball, if they’re able to utilize them more often, can take some of the heat off the changeup. It makes the changeup an even better pitch by not exposing it as much.
“James has really developed his cutter and his curveball the last couple of years, which I think has made his changeup even better. Right now, Helly is in the process of developing his curveball a little more, which combined with his fastball command, will make his changeup even better.
“It’s just a more mature outlook. It’s having a better in-game awareness of what you’re trying to do, being able to better utilize all of your weapons and understand them better. That takes time. You can read about it, you can look at a spreadsheet — whatever — but you also have to go out there and feel it in the heat of the moment.”
On Hickey saying that Shields and Hellickson aren’t conventional pitchers: “They throw their changeups often, but I don’t know that’s the definition of not being conventional. I’d have to think about who the other changeup guys are in the American League are, the ones who have that good of a changeup and are willing to throw it that often. King Felix has a great changeup that he threw a lot against us. There are a couple of guys out there, but our guys are maybe a little more willing to utilize that pitch. But again, I don’t want them to throw it too much. If you do, I believe that you’re going to make some mistakes and there’s a chance that some of your effectiveness is going to go away.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.