Why Hasn’t James Shields Been “Big Game James?”

We — and I suppose by “we,” I do mean “the people I enjoy on Twitter” — have gotten a lot of joke mileage this postseason thanks just to a few never-ending items that have been pounded into the ground by baseball media and observers. I’m talking about things like Ernie Johnson’s complete lack of emotion, the eternal Viagra ad, TBS insisting on trying to make “shutdown innings” a thing, and so on.

Included among that has been that every single time James Shields‘ name is mentioned, he’s referred to as “Big Game James,” as though it’s his legal name. Shields is a very good pitcher, but he’s picked up a certain reputation for doing well in big spots entirely because of a rhyming sound his name makes. If only he’d gone with “Jim Shields,” right?

The gag there is obvious. “Big Game James” hasn’t actually come up that big at all in the postseason. For his career, he’s got a 5.19 ERA in nine starts. Five times, he’s allowed four runs or fewer, which is great, but four of those times came way back during Tampa Bay’s 2008 run to the World Series, which is not. Between 2008 and 2014, his postseason experience consisted of being hit hard by Texas twice, allowing a combined 11 earned runs across an ALDS start in 2010 and another in 2011.

This year, he’s made three starts, and while the Royals have of course won all three, it hasn’t necessarily been thanks to him. In the wild card game, he allowed four runs and nine baserunners in five innings, including leaving a meatball of a changeup for Brandon Moss to drive out of the park. (Though Ned Yost was later crushed for his decisions in that game, the mistake was bringing in Yordano Ventura, not deciding that Shields was done.) Against the Angels in the ALDS, he was better, allowing two earned runs in six innings, though he again allowed nine baserunners, along with solo homers to Mike Trout & Albert Pujols. And in Game 1 of the ALCS against Baltimore, he allowed 11 baserunners and four runs, helping to turn what had been a 4-0 lead into a game the Royals had to win on 10th inning Alex Gordon & Mike Moustakas homers.

The Royals have been winning in ways we might not have expected, but “having your best starter underperform” isn’t exactly a welcome part of that menu. So, as Shields prepares to throw the first pitch of the World Series against Gregor Blanco and the Giants tonight, is there anything we can draw from his postseason struggles? Anything the Giants might want to keep in mind?

* * *

Let’s acknowledge the obvious: These are small sample sizes. Nine starts aren’t really that many, and in fact we’re going to be limiting that even further, since I’m not all that concerned with what 26-year-old Jamie Shields did as a Ray against the White Sox, Red Sox, and Phillies six years ago. What’s interesting to us is what he’s doing right now, and what he’s likely to do in the one or two starts he’ll get against the Giants.

And, in fact, let’s push this further back. Shields allowed three earned runs in each of his last three games of the regular season, after a stretch in which he’d allowed two earned runs in the preceding three games. In five of his last six games, he’s allowed three or more earned runs, and two of those came against the White Sox, which pushes back a bit on the “you see better teams in the postseason” theory. With the Royals variously trying to catch the Tigers in the AL Central and hold off the A’s and Mariners in the wild card race, one might conclude that those have been “big” games as well, and Shields hasn’t been a top-quality starter for most of the last month-plus.

So, what do we know about Shields? We know that a huge part of his reputation is that he’s reliable and durable, pitching at least 227 innings in each of the last four years, and at least 203 in all eight of his full big league seasons. Other than a serious 2002 shoulder injury that wiped out his age-20 season in Single-A, Shields has never been injured as a pro. He’s thrown the second-most regular season innings in baseball over the last two years, and the most over both the last three and four and so on. Since his first full season in 2007, no pitcher in baseball has thrown more regular season innings than Shields, even if that’s by only a single out more than Felix Hernandez.

There’s a ton of mileage on that arm, just over 2,500 innings as a pro, and as he nears his 33rd birthday in December, one would rightfully start to worry about the cumulative effects of tens of thousands of pitches. But velocity hasn’t really been an issue; in fact, he’s increased it, surprisingly. Shields’s 2014 average of 93.75 mph on his four-seamer is the fastest he’s had in the last five seasons, and even within the confines of this year alone, there’s no concerning velocity drop.

If you’re thinking about pitch repertoire, half of Shields’ strategy has always been to make it difficult to guess what’s coming next. For years, Shields has thrown five pitches — four- and two-seam fastballs, a change, a curve, and a cutter. (Some sources combine the fastballs and say he throws four pitches, but as usual, I’ll defer to Brooks on this one.) For the last few years, he’s been using his once-stellar curve less and less in favor of the cutter, a move that helped him, since his cutter was rated as the most valuable in the American League just last season.

It’s a change that makes sense, anyway, considering that when you look at the horizontal and vertical movement of the two pitches, they slowly became more and more similar over time:

shields_cutter_curve

But that’s not a change that happened just this season, and certainly not in the last few weeks. So instead, let’s take a deeper dive into usage, and we’ll adapt some Brooks charts to do so. In white, his pitch usage from the regular season. In blue, we have Shields in the postseason.

There’s a lot happening here. Just hang with me, it will be explained.

James Shields, 2014 ’14
season
’14
playoffs
Fourseam Sinker Cutter Curve Change
LHH
All Counts 25% 40% 15% 2% 21% 26% 15% 8% 25% 23%
First Pitch 37% 53% 19% 3% 17% 24% 20% 6% 8% 15%
Batter Ahead 34% 49% 15% 3% 24% 34% 3% 0% 25% 14%
Even 27% 46% 16% 2% 22% 25% 15% 6% 20% 21%
Pitcher Ahead 13% 24% 13% 0% 16% 21% 25% 21% 33% 35%
Two Strikes 19% 50% 16% 0% 20% 7% 9% 3% 35% 40%
RHH
All Counts 32% 28% 12% 15% 28% 33% 10% 7% 18% 17%
First Pitch 41% 23% 14% 18% 34% 53% 7% 8% 3% 0%
Batter Ahead 39% 33% 13% 19% 33% 33% 2% 0% 14% 16%
Even 32% 24% 14% 18% 29% 46% 9% 4% 15% 7%
Pitcher Ahead 25% 31% 9% 6% 23% 13% 17% 17% 26% 33%
Two Strikes 34% 39% 4% 2% 19% 13% 9% 9% 35% 38%

So what do we see there? (Yes, “a giant wall of numbers and a trip to the eye doctor” is accurate.) What really stands out is that against lefties, Shields has been using his fastball much more often overall, and higher in every situation. His two-seamer is just gone, having all but disappeared, and the curve and change have both seen considerable decreases. Of the 30 times he’s had two strikes on a lefty, 15 of them have been fastballs. Rather than trying to use the cutter, sinker, or curve as a putaway pitch, as he often did this year, it’s been all fastball and change.

There’s something to be said for avoiding predictability and keeping the other guy guessing, but Shields’ fastball has never been his meal ticket. It’s obviously great to have a fastball that comes in at 93-94 to set up the other pitches, but overall, it’s been rated as something of a negative in his two seasons in KC. As a Royal, his two plus pitches have been his cutter and his change, and even his change endured a tough 2014 before looking much better late in the season, as Jeff detailed at the end of September. It hasn’t worked wonderfully so far. Shields has thrown the fastball to nine lefties this postseason, and four of them — two singles, a walk, and a homer — ended up not turning into outs.

Against righties, he’s actually thrown the fastball less than he did in the regular season, preferring instead to throw the cutter, especially on the first pitch. (One of those fastballs was the one to Trout, who took it out of the park.) Against Pujols, the cutter just sort of fluttered up to the plate, then quickly departed the park:

shields_pujols_cutter

When it’s right, the cutter is a deadly pitch. That one wasn’t, and at times this October it’s been a little less than usual, both in bite and in placement. As you can see during the regular season, that cutter mostly went down and away to righties, or down and in to lefties. In limited samples this postseason — and I hope I’ve reiterated that point enough — he’s found himself catching a bit more of the plate, particularly down and centered.

shields_cutter

Shields, fresh off an uninspiring six start stretch, is still the best starter the Royals have, and there’s really nothing wrong with him, as far as we can tell. (Other than the kidney stone he apparently dealt with after his ALCS start, which prevented him from being considered on short rest for Game 4.) The cutter doesn’t seem quite so sharp right now, and his pitch selection has changed from the regular season. Either or both could be having some impacts, small as they may be, because it’s not like he’s been getting lit up.

Part of the issue might just be perception. After all, Shields is a very, very good pitcher, but few would really place him in the absolute upper echelon of aces, the level where Clayton Kershaw, Felix Hernandez, healthy versions of Chris Sale, Masahiro Tanaka, Yu Darvish and others reside; he did, after all, allow five or more runs in a game seven times this year. His FIP was tied for 40th, just behind Henderson Alvarez. His ERA, 28th. He’s a really good pitcher, just below an elite one, and his team has managed to succeed this postseason without him at his best.

They’ll take that, certainly. But will it be enough if the “just okay” Shields shows up tonight against Madison Bumgarner?





Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not. Find him at @mike_petriello or MLB.com.

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vivalajeter
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vivalajeter

Mike, I must admit that I’m a little surprised you didn’t mention the real reason that he got that nickname.

Me
Guest
Me

Why pray tell did he get it?

vivalajeter
Guest
vivalajeter

He was a James Worthy fan growing up. Worthy’s nickname was Big Game James, so Shields’ teammates started calling him that. I think he got the nickname before ever pitching in the big leagues.