After a classic ending to football season featuring an absurdly controversial decision — it’s indeed a travesty that Falcor was passed over for Puppy Bowl MVP — the sporting nation prepares to turn its eyes to baseball. Amid the oncoming rush of “best shape of my life” stories common to the February sports pages, one high-end free agent, James Shields, remains unsigned. He’s certain to be locked up soon, but almost as certain to land a financial guarantee much less than he was seeking just a couple months ago. Who is James Shields, what is his value and whose uniform might he be donning in the coming weeks?
One can make the argument that Shields is the single best draft pick in Tampa Bay Rays’ history. He was tabbed on the 16th round of the 2000 draft out of Hart High School in Santa Clarita, Calif. He hit the ground running, reaching full-season ball in first pro season at 19, posting a 2.65 ERA and a stellar 60/10 K/BB ratio in 71 1/3 IP and averaging over 7 IP per start in 10 Low-A outings. Just when it appeared Shields was ready to move onto the top-prospect radar, he missed all of 2002 with a significant shoulder injury.
He regained his health, if not his prospect status in 2003-04, posting ERAs in the mid-4s, toiling for all but 18 innings at the High-A level. Shields then found his groove at Double-A in 2005, posting a 2.80 ERA and 104/31 K/BB in 109 1/3 IP. He opened 2006 at Triple-A Durham, and eviscerated the International League to the tune of a 64/6 K/BB and 2.64 IP in 61 1/3 IP. He was ready for prime time.
Each season I compile my own ordered list of top minor league pitching prospects based on K/BB and K/9 rates, adjusted for age, relative to one’s minor league level. It basically serves as a follow list, with adjustments to the list then made based on traditional scouting methods. Shields qualified for my list four times, as high as No. 2 in 2006, behind only the Angels’ Jered Weaver, and No. 33 in 2001. Such rankings marked him as someone destined for a long, productive major-league career.
That is exactly what has happened. Shields has never missed a start since his arrival at the major league level, and has some black ink in the record book in several durability-related categories, pacing the AL in starts twice, complete games once, innings once, batters faced once……and hits, earned runs and homers allowed once each, all in his career-worst 2010 season. He has a 114-90, 3.72, career record, and has accumulated 31.6 WAR along the way. He has been remarkably consistent, notching between 3.5 and 4.5 WAR in seven of his eight full seasons, though he has never been a truly dominant hurler.
Let’s next take a step backward, and review the building blocks of his game, by looking at Shields’ plate-appearance outcome frequency and production allowed by ball-in-play (BIP) type data. Quickly, however, let’s thin the herd of Shields’ 30 potential 2015 employers by half.
(ATL, PHL, MIN are clear non-contenders. PIT, TB and OAK definitely aren’t going to step up financially, and NYM, CIN, MIL, CWS and CLE almost certainly won’t. He won’t go to COL. WAS just signed Scherzer; BOS has a glut of starting pitchers and TEX just made their pitching move on Yovani Gallardo.)
Now, the frequency info:
|FREQ – 2014|
Shields has always ridden strong K and BB rates to success, as he has a history of being a below average contact manager. However, his K rate percentile rank, 55 in 2014, has quickly trended down towards league average after peaking at 88 in 2012. After a few years of drifting upward, his BB rate percentile rank dropped to 13 in 2014, his lowest mark since it reached the same exact level in 2009-10.
Shields does not have a single strong BIP type tendency; none of 2014 BIP type percentile ranks were below 40 or above 60. At various points during his career, his popup and grounder percentile ranks have temporarily drifted upward, but have never stayed there. Actually, the one BIP type he has somewhat consistently yielded is the one you don’t want to — line drives. Before 2014, he had allowed a liner percentile rank of 77 or higher in three of the previous five seasons.
So Shields lacks a go-to popup or grounder-inducing tendency, and his once strong K rate has now slid back toward league average. His low BB rate is the lone shining positive on his frequency profile. Let’s next cut his potential 2015 destinations down to eight.
(CUB has made their big offseason pitching move. There doesn’t appear to be room in LAD’s rotation. I can’t wrap my head around another big SD splash. I actually think NYY will enter the season without a big-ticket move. Just don’t see a West Coast guy like Shields selecting TOR. HOU’s an intriguing option that might have interest, but I don’t quite see the match. I doubt SEA has the room for another large financial addition.)
Now let’s get a better feel for the BIP authority allowed by Shields last season by examining his production by BIP-type data:
|PROD – 2014|
|Shields||AVG||OBP||SLG||REL PRD||ADJ PRD||ACT ERA||CALC ERA||TRU ERA|
The actual production allowed on each BIP type is indicated in the AVG and SLG columns, and is converted to run values and compared to MLB average in the REL PRD column. That figure is then adjusted for context, such as home park, team defense, luck, etc., in the ADJ PRD column. For the purposes of this exercise, SH and SF are included as outs and HBP are excluded from the OBP calculation.
Shields’ actual fly ball production allowed was slightly higher than the MLB average, for a 106 REL PRD figure. Interestingly, he was not helped by the Royals’ pitcher-friendly ballpark or their vaunted outfield defense. Context actually adjusts his fly ball ADJ PRD slightly down to 102. Shields was a bit lucky on liners in 2014 (88 REL PRD), though his 95 ADJ PRD mark is still better than league average. Shields allowed slightly higher than average authority on grounders (104 REL PRD), which is marginally adjusted downward to a 102 ADJ PRD figure for context.
Put all of the BIP types together, and Shields was an almost exactly MLB average contact manager in 2014, with a 100 REL PRD and 101 ADJ PRD. Add back the Ks and BBs, and those marks are adjusted to 93 and 94, respectively. His “tru” ERA — adjusted for context — was 3.53, quite a bit higher than his actual 3.21 ERA, and much more closely aligned with his 3.59 FIP.
This wasn’t a one-year phenomenon, either, as his 2013 “tru” ERA of 3.78 closely aligns with his 3.72 FIP, and is much higher than his 3.15 actual ERA. In both seasons, Shields’ actual ERA was held at an artificially low level because of some combination of event sequencing, a pitcher-friendly park and a strong defense behind him. Shields, at 33, is a slightly better than a league-average pitcher — a 94 ADJ PRD in 2014, 98 in 2013 — who logs a lot of innings. That’s valuable, but not sexy. His floor appears to be quite high, but his ceiling is increasingly limited. Let’s further narrow his list of potential homes to the final four.
(Can’t see MIA pulling the financial trigger. Don’t think Shields wants to pitch in AZ. Unless the price really comes down, don’t see DET getting materially involved. A return to KC seems a deep fallback option at best. That leaves STL, SF, BAL and LAA.)
James Shields has played his entire career in pitchers’ parks, for clubs that valued defense quite highly. Despite that fact, Shields has a career unadjusted contact score — basically equal to REL PRD above — of 103.0. This is quite high for an ERA-qualifying starting pitcher. Though the league average by definition is 100, the league average of ERA qualifiers is usually around 97. And remember, his 103.0 mark is not adjusted for context, which would seem to inflate that number even higher.
Shields has relied heavily on strong K and BB rates for success, and his K rate is under increasing stress. He lacks even an inkling of a popup or grounder tendency that creates margin for error with regard to contact management. Repertoire-wise, he actually threw his fastball harder than ever (92.5 MPH average velocity) in 2014, but its pitch values have been a steady decline the last few years. His changeup, his long-time out pitch, was hit quite hard in 2014. On the positive side, his control is at or near an all-time peak, and his cutter has become a viable and more frequently-used weapon in recent seasons.
Shields has also thrown the 2nd-most pitches of any MLB hurler over the last eight seasons, behind only Justin Verlander, who turned into a pumpkin — at least temporarily — last season. Before Verlander, the rolling eight-year pitch leader was Dan Haren, who promptly saw his performance decline. Before Haren, it was CC Sabathia. Before Sabathia, it was Barry Zito. Noticing a trend?
The restraint shown by clubs with regard to making a major investment in James Shields is wise, in my opinion. He is likely to eat innings in the short-to-intermediate term, but is evolving into a pitch-to-relatively-hard-contact guy lacking a material upside. Teams with big parks and solid defenses only should consider taking the plunge.
BAL has recently become a stronger candidate, as only recently has their general manager situation become settled. The guess here is they’ll make a strong run and then fall short. LAA has made this sort of bold free agent move before. (See Pujols, Albert and Hamilton, Josh.) This one isn’t going to cost nearly as much, but the presence of those two relative under-producers on the books plus the pending early return of Garrett Richards might ultimately take them out of the mix. STL tends to lay in the weeds, and ultimately pounce on players such as Shields. While in one way they seem a perfect fit, they might ultimately have to choose between going for Shields and attempting to lock up Jason Heyward long-term. I’d invest in Heyward.
That leaves SF. The reigning champions made a push to retain Pablo Sandoval but fell short. Their pitching staff is aging and could use the help. They’re a West Coast club, with a pitchers’ park, that focuses on defense. Shields, by all accounts, would be happy playing there, and the club appears to have the financial wherewithal to make it happen. His decline would be cushioned by his surroundings, and hey, this club has won three of the past five World Series despite investing heavily in Zito and Tim Lincecum — two deals that haven’t worked out so well. The call here is Shields to the Giants, for something in the vicinity of four years and $75 million.