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January 30, 2008
Recently the Rays locked up James Shields to an extension, one that serves both parties very well. Shields gets paid well with a guaranteed contract for a few seasons before he would have been arbitration-eligible, and the Rays win out even if Shields is only a league-average pitcher for the duration of the guaranteed years of the deal. The questions we are interested in today have to do with just what can be expected from Shields in the near future, and how he came to be in his current position.
Shields was selected by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in round sixteen of the 2000 amateur entry draft. He did not sign until August, so his professional debut would wait until 2001, when he first pitched for Low-A Hudson Valley. The 19-year-old began the season in extended spring training thanks to a shoulder injury, but pitched well out of high school at two levels:
Year Team IP K/9 BB/9 K/BB HR/9 H/9 RA 2001 Hudson Valley(A-) 27.1 8.2 1.7 5.0 0.3 8.9 2.66 2001 Charleston(A) 71.1 7.6 1.3 6.0 0.9 8.0 3.04
Shields wasn't striking out a ton of batters in the low minors, but he was fooling enough of them while being stingy with the free passes, so it paid off. His homer rate is a bit high for that early in the minors, but overall that's nitpicking for a pitcher who was a 16th-rounder out of high school.
This was the only year that Shields would pitch his way into a Baseball America prospect list until 2006, as he began the 2002 season ranked No.27 in the system:
Shields has good command of his fastball, which was clocked as high as 91 mph last summer. He also has a plus curveball that features sharp, late-breaking action, making it particularly troublesome for right-handers. Shields has impressive determination and excellent endurance…His changeup is no better than average, but the Rays believe that once he makes it more consistent, he could move rapidly. Shields made the most of his opportunities last year.
It's interesting to note that Shields' changeup was then considered an average pitch while his breaking ball was a plus pitch, whereas he currently relies heavily on his changeup and doesn't his use breaking ball all that much. It's also worth noting that he was getting singled out for his makeup and determination this early on in his career, even though he wasn't that far removed from high school.
Shields lost his 2002 season to shoulder surgery, which helped to knock him off of the prospect radar he'd only just put himself on. He would pitch for High-A Bakersfield in both 2003 and 2004, posting some unimpressive numbers:
Year Team IP K/9 BB/9 K/BB HR/9 H/9 RA 2003 Bakersfield(A+) 143.2 7.5 2.4 3.1 1.2 10.1 5.34 2004 Bakersfield(A+) 117.0 7.1 2.5 2.8 1.0 9.2 4.77
His K/BB still looked good, but with the lofty hit and homer rates, it was not good enough. His 2004 season showed some marginal improvement, but that gets tempered when you consider that it was a repeat of the level. He did miss part of the season with shoulder tendonitis, which is why his innings are somewhat down. This was the last major recurrence of any shoulder for him, at least so far. He threw 18 1/3 innings at Double-A Montgomery in addition to his 2004 total above, and that netted him some ugly numbers: four homers and eight walks walks allowed, but also 14 strikeouts.
At this point, due to his draft position, lost development year, and relatively unimpressive stats at High-A, Shields was nowhere to be found in both Baseball America's prospect guide or and Baseball Prospectus 2005. He would once again make the most of his opportunities though, as he figured out how to handle Double-A hitters despite never really dominating at High-A:
Despite the promotion, his strikeouts jumped up a notch without giving up anything extra through walks, and he managed to cut his home run rates in half, although leaving the Cal League in his rear-view mirror certainly helped. He dropped his hit rate without posting an unsustainably low BABIP, as he finished the season with a .319 mark. His 3.36 QuickERA helps to confirm the value of his season, a campaign that put him back in the spotlight for Baseball America:
He did not surrender more than four earned runs in any of his 16 starts and held opponents to two runs or less in 10 of those outings. Though not overpowering for a right-hander, Shields showed he has the overall package to be a solid fourth starter in the big leagues. He has a good run on his 89-92 mph fastball, and he controls and commands it well. His changeup is his best offering, possessing excellent deception and fade. Shields works with two breaking balls, a curveball and a slurvy slider. He uses the curve to change planes on hitters, and his slider as a chase pitch down and away to right-handers. He needs to sharpen one of the breaking balls in order to have a solid third pitch. Shields also has a little length to his arm action and could add some strength to his tall and slender frame. He worked on those elements during a strong effort in the Arizona Fall League, where he ranked second with a 1.74 ERA…
Shields had made a shift, becoming a fastball/changeup pitcher; his breaking ball, while still in use, isn't the plus pitch that it used to be. The slurvy slider comes from times where he tightens up his curveball, making it a hybrid pitch of sorts, and he now uses it fewer times in a game than when he was in the high minors.
Considering both the changes to his approach and his previous appearances in the minors, his 2005 breakthrough was pretty unexpected, but Tampa was more than happy to have something positive unforeseen come through, especially as they hadn't developed much front-line pitching talent to that point.
Baseball Prospectus 2006 was especially impressed with Shields following his strong campaign:
When pitchers click: Shields hadn't done much to establish himself as a prospect since going to the Rays in the 16th round of the 2000 draft, but things came together in the second half of 2005. He was the pitching Biscuit of the year for Montgomery, then went on to the AFL where he posted a 1.74 ERA, allowing a .207 batting average and a 29-2 strikeout-walk ratio in 31 innings. Shields doesn't have great stuff, but he's figured out how to use it.
PECOTA wasn't a fan at this stage, given his few successes over the course of his career: the forecast was for a 5.93 major league equivalent PERA, and his top comparables were Victor Santos, Vinny Chulk, and Jason Ryan, not exactly the best company to keep. Despite this, and despite a potential label as a budding fourth starter, Shields torched Triple-A hitters for 60+ innings in 2006 before moving on to the majors for good:
Year Team IP K/9 BB/9 K/BB HR/9 H/9 QERA 2006 Durham(AAA) 61.1 9.4 0.9 10.7 0.4 8.8 2.33 2006 Tampa Bay(MLB) 124.2 7.5 2.7 2.7 1.3 10.2 4.03
If the increased strikeout rate and ridiculous K/BB weren't enough evidence-having a strikeout-to-walk ratio higher than your strikeout rate is pretty great, especially when you are punching out over one hitter per inning-the 2.33 QERA has to get Shields some extra love. For major league equivalencies' sake, his Peripheral ERA from that stint at Durham was 2.95, and 4.24 for the time in the majors. All in all, it was a second obviously legit season from someone who was completely off the grid until just the previous year, and it earned Shields another full-time shot at the rotation in 2007.
Baseball Prospectus 2007 was a fan of Shields' approach:
Shields was named Tampa Bay's top rookie by the Baseball Writers Association of America, capping a strong two-year run. He began appearing on prospect lists after a strong 2005 at Double-A and in the Arizona Fall League, then kept his command-and-prosper act going in Triple-A last year, earning a big league call-up at the end of May. No one's ever going to stop and admire one of Shields's pitches, but he stays low in the strike zone, throws a sinker to get groundballs, and mixes in some decent off-speed stuff to keep hitters honest. It's not always pretty, but it works.
After adjusting to major league hitters a bit more, Shields turned in an even more impressive 2007 campaign:
Though his strikeout rate remained about the same, Shields managed to cut down even further on free passes, which upped his K/BB ratio. The homers don't look like they are going to go away at this point given the nature of his stuff, but he more than compensates in other areas to make up for it. That 3.34 QERA is impressive, and shows that Shields is every bit as unambiguously good as an initial glance at how he's pitched during his time in the majors would tell you.
The Rays then signed Shields to a hefty extension that could keep him around from four to seven seasons, a deal totaling up to $44 million. It's a relatively low-risk deal, as even a league-average Shields would not be overpaid during the guaranteed years of the contract, and when you compare the potential upside of Shields versus the downside on both a performance and injury risk level--he's 26 years old, and hasn't been worked overly hard during his career--the Rays come out ahead.
What changed for Shields during 2007? Besides additional experience, he improved the arm action on his changeup, which made his best pitch that much better. It has gone from an average pitch to one of the top changeups in the league over the course of his professional career, and he relies on it. His curveball/slider hybrid was used as a 'show-me' pitch rather than with any kind of consistency, and he trusted his fastball and changeup to get the job done all season. As the year progressed, he also began to work in a cut fastball more often that comes in around 89-90 mph.
His batted-ball data shows no significant problems, meaning that, outside of a fluky run, Shields should perform about as well next year as he did this year, if not better:
Year Vs. FB% LD% GB% POP% HR/F% BABIP eBABIP Diff. 2006 LHB 31.1% 18.9% 46.4% 3.1% 14.7% .316 .309 -.007 2006 RHB 27.9% 23.2% 38.9% 10.0% 10.8% .405 .352 -.053 2007 LHB 33.6% 14.5% 47.0% 4.9% 8.7% .296 .265 -.031 2007 RHB 27.8% 19.8% 41.0% 11.4% 14.1% .321 .318 -.003
There are no real problems with his BABIP. With the improvements to the Rays defense--remember, they were the worst defense in the league last year according to Team Defensive Efficiency--we should see Shields maintain, if not improve upon, his BABIP somewhat. This should also help him improve on his Left on Base rate, which came in at 71.8 percent last season.
One thing that has really helped Shields is the number of infield flies he is able to generate. I've made some tweaks to the way batted-ball data is presented here. Instead of using infield flies as a percentage of fly balls, I have them listed as a percentage of all batted-balls. HR/F is still measured as the number of homers per fly balls, where fly balls are defined as fly balls plus popups. So with that out of the way, it should hit you just how impressive those POP% figures against right-handed batters really are. Most impressive is the way he had them pop up weakly to the opposite field often last year, as seen in this chart:
This is the result of Shields' deliberate strategy on the mound. He's efficient with his pitches--3.7 and 3.6 P/PA the past two seasons--and he attacks the hitter and the zone, forcing mistakes. That's part of the reason why his homer totals are not as big of a deal as they could be, as Shields makes up for it by keeping hitters off base by not giving up walks, striking hitters out and forcing them to ground out and pop out often. In 2007, opposing hitters lacked the success on grounders that they had in 2006, despite the Rays' defensive problems:
I also asked Dan Fox, BP's resident PITCHf/x guru, for some data on Shields. Here's what he came up with:
While Shields made 31 starts in 2007, only eight of them were captured by PITCHf/x, although the span included his April 11th start at Texas through his September 9th start versus Toronto at Tropicana Field. We have 712 total pitches to analyze.
Despite his lack of shiny offerings, the Rays trust that he will continue to pitch this well, and have rewarded him monetarily for his hard work and results. Given what we know about him--his pitch types, pitch efficiency, the way he attacks the zone, his makeup, and his batted-ball data--it's easy to say that Shields is capable of pitching as well as he did in 2007 again, if not better once he gets a handle on his cut fastball and has a better defense behind him.