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Reportedly signed RHP James Shields to a four-year deal worth approximately $72 million to $75 million. [2/8]

James Shields is, by far, the most interesting case study in the sociology of baseball today. How do we come to terms with the worth of Big Game James? Well, the Padres were kind enough to answer that question by giving him a four-year deal somewhere just south of $20 million per year (early reports quoted a number between $72 million and $76 million total for the deal)

The Padres? Let’s see here. Let me make sure I shoehorn all the major key phrases in. Petco Park is a pitchers’ park. James Shields is a pitcher. Justin Upton, Matt Kemp, Wil Myers, Will Middlebrooks, Derek Norris, and now James Shields. Looks like the Padres are serious about… something. It might be the second Wild Card spot, but they sure are serious.

Now that we’ve done that. What is James Shields?

He doesn’t pass the “deep breath” test for an ace starter (It’s Game 7 and the other team is throwing Clayton Kershaw. You are throwing Pitcher X. Who you got? The answer to this question might still be the Dodgers, but the answer had better start with a deep breath. Otherwise, Pitcher X is not an ace.)

Yet Shields is also not “an innings eater” at least in that most of the time when people use the term, they mean it as a backhanded compliment. At Hall of Fame time, we call them “compilers.” Shields has thrown more than 200 innings in each of the last eight(!!!) seasons, and over the last four years, has had a FIP around 3.50 (3.42, 3.47, 3.47, 3.59). That’s not elite, but every single team in baseball would love to have that pitcher in their rotation.

Shields has also gotten unfairly dinged for his “Big Game” nickname, due to a rather lackluster playoff record (a lifetime 5.46 playoff ERA). He has not yet had his heroic moment in the sun. Maybe he never will. But it’s undeniable, especially given the number of zeroes on that contract he just signed, that James Shields is really valuable guy to have on a rotation.

If Shields were a dominant ace, or were simple mid-rotation filler, or was just a fringe guy, we’d have a framework for assessing his value. If he were a hero or particularly famous, we’d know what to make of him. It’s just that he doesn’t tick any of the normal boxes. He’s never been a 20 game winner (his career high was 16 in 2011). His skillset is better marked out by what he doesn’t do (issue many walks, a career 2.1 per 9 innings mark), rather than the prototypical strike everyone out model (a career 7.7 per 9 IP). And he never misses a start. Since 2007, his games started column has read 31, 33, 33, 33, 33, 33, 34, 34. James Shields is the Toyota Corolla of pitchers. Dependable, hard-working, doesn’t break down.

Ah, but we live in a culture that romances the sports car. James Shields is not a sports car.

We do know that Shields has been a four-ish win player per year – and again, that on a remarkably consistent basis. We’ve heard over and over again that a win is worth $7 million on the free agent market. Why is James Shields not making roughly $25-28 million per year? For one, there’s a problem that the market has with pricing players who are very good. Last year, Robinson Cano who had a track record of delivering 6-7 wins per season (and did so again in 2014), “only” made $25 million. The $7 million per win rule tends to break down at the top. The market has corrected for this by teams essentially adding extra years to the back end of deals (Cano got ten), essentially forcing teams to push expenses into the future and pay for years when a player likely won’t be as good. There’s a certain unwritten rule about salaries at the top. It’s OK to sign someone to the richest contract in the game, but the rate musn’t outpace the old record holder by too much.

So, why did James Shields only get four years? And at a rate which suggests that he’ll be less than a three-ish win player? For one, Shields will be 33, so teams might see him as at a greater risk for decline or injury, but we just got done pointing out how insanely consistent and durable Shields has been for his entire career. That has to count for something? Right?

I suppose that every pitcher is just one elbow injury away from… well, we don’t really want to go there, do we? But if Shields’s best asset is his history of durability, let’s ask the question. Should the Padres (and the rest of baseball) be worried that it will go poof before their eyes? Even the most dependable car in the world eventually breaks down.

Warning! Gory Mathematical Details Ahead!

Let’s start with a simple question. How likely is it that a pitcher will pitch 200 or more innings in a season? If a pitcher does so, we can reasonably conclude that he was healthy in that year and that he was good enough that the manager was fine with him pitching all those innings. I started in 1996, because the shortened seasons of 1994 and 1995 will play havoc with it otherwise. I took all pitchers who had at least 100 innings pitched in a season and made more than 90 percent of their appearances as starters and then split the pitchers into two groups. Less than or more than 200 innings pitched.

Not surprisingly, pitchers who pitched 200 innings last year were better bets to pitch 200 in the following year. More than half (56 percent) of those who hit the 200 mark in the previous year matched it in the next, while only a quarter of those who didn’t hit 200 the year before managed to boost above the magic mark. That sort of difference between groups was pretty persistent. There were pitchers who made it to 200 after not being present the year before, but having a track record of 200 innings was made a pitcher roughly twice as likely to hit our durability benchmarks in the future, no matter how you sliced them. The best indicator of pitcher durability was previous durability.

In fact, if a pitcher had a 200 IP season, he was 41 percent likely to do so in the second year afterward, 35 percent likely in the third year after that, and 27 percent likely to do so in the fourth year. Sounds decent for Shields’s chances, but we know more about him than that.

Shields has an extended history of 200 IP seasons, so let’s look at what happens when a pitcher has a history with hitting the double-century mark:

Number of consecutive years pitching 200 IP

Chances of pitching 200 IP in the next year

At least 1

56.0 percent

At least 2

60.7 percent

At least 3

69.1 percent

At least 4

69.9 percent

Shields has 8, but the sample size gets a little small because a guy like Shields is such a rarity. But we can see that the longer a pitcher has been pitching 200 innings, his chances for repeating the feat go up significantly. This runs counter to the assumption that these pitchers are more likely to be damaged goods from all the innings that they’ve racked up. Jeff Zimmerman has previously found that this “career odometer” method is actually not a very good predictor of injury risk. My own work has shown that the most powerful predictor of injury is actually previous injury. Shields may have a lot of miles on the odometer, but he’s been remarkably healthy over the years.

But then again, Shields didn’t just sign for one year. What are the chances that in a few years, he’ll still be pitching 200 innings. Let’s look again at that group that had 4 consecutive seasons (or more) of 200 IP and see what happened

Years after logging 4 consecutive 200 IP seasons

Chances of pitching 200 IP in that year

Fifth year

69.9 percent

Sixth year

52.0 percent

Seventh year

42.6 percent

Eighth year

35.7 percent

Now, those numbers are a mixed bag in terms of practical message. It’s very likely that a guy with Shields’s track record will hit 200 IP in year 1 of his contract, but by year 2 and year 3, we start getting to a 50/50 shot. And Shields is no spring chicken. At age 33 next year, perhaps he’s more of a candidate to fall of the proverbial cliff? To test this, I constructed a binary logistic regression with the group that had four consecutive previous years of 200 IP. I tested whether age predicted the chances of reaching 200 IP in any of the next four years. The answer was surprisingly “no.” What (non-significant) effect there was pointed toward older pitchers having an advantage in being able to sustain the magic.

Still, our estimate of Shields’s chances are that by year 4, he’s only a 1 in 3 chance to be continuing his ironman streak. But let’s set the bar a little lower. While Shields has been pitching 200 innings a season up to this point, what if we only ask him to hit 180? What are the chances that someone with his track record can hit that note?

Years after logging 4 consecutive 200 IP seasons

Chances of pitching 180 IP in the next year

Fifth year

86.7 percent

Sixth year

73.3 percent

Seventh year

61.8 percent

Eighth year

50.0 percent

There’s risk in there, sure. But there’s risk in everything. In fact, in studying big extensions for position players, I found that even players who had a three year track record of being All-Star level performers only remained All-Stars about 40 percent of the time after 3 years. Shields looks like a slightly better bet and doesn’t come with a 7 year contract term attached. I know everyone frets about pitcher injuries over long-term deals, but the evidence here shows that durability is not an illusion and pitchers, specifically of Shields’s track record, are actually a somewhat better risk than are position players. It’s true that this contract could go spectacularly wrong, but everything in life can go spectacularly wrong. There’s such a thing as over-pricing risk and I think Shields shows that the market is a little too reluctant to believe durability when it sees it.

Mr. Reliable
So, we come back to the mystery of why James Shields got so little money, comparatively. Every free agent contract could end up as a disaster, and Shields is no exception, but it seems that the risk that’s being assumed is well-matched to the player. Let’s add in the fact that unlike a position player, Shields’s value is not subject to a need to move down the defensive spectrum. Signing a hotshot free agent first baseman runs the risk that someone else on the team might need to move to first later on or a first base prospect in the minors develops. Then what? If necessary, Shields can be a fourth starter and still produce full value. Even if Shields is a three-win player over the next few years, the Padres have basically locked in a rate of return on their free agent dollars that’s in line with the market. If he can keep some of that four-win mojo going, he’s a bargain.

On top of his WAR value, a guy like Shields has some add-on value that’s harder to put a number on. Pitching 200 innings in a season means that a pitcher is often going into the seventh on a consistent basis. Colin Wyers has shown previously that the longer a starter goes in a game, the better the bullpen pitches. The manager, of course, can skip the lousy guys in the pen and just use the good ones. He’s more at liberty to play matchups as well and in a close game, that can make a big difference. Even if the game is 8-3, the fact that Shields pitches the seventh means one less inning that the bullpen has to absorb. We do know that managers don’t actually alter their strategy the day before if they know a workhorse is going the next day, but because Shields isn’t prone to three inning meltdowns, there’s a reduced chance of needing to run a prized prospect up to the bigs ahead of schedule just because the big team needs cover that night. None of this is easy to quantify, but it’s most certainly all positive.

Add all that up and the Padres got a player who is remarkably consistent and relatively likely to hold his value over the term of the contract. They got him for a price that, if he does hold his value, has the likely low side of simply being a market rate buy and the upside of beating the market. They did so without committing a large number of years. There will probably be other free agent signings that turn out better. Some one-year scrap heap signee will have a career year, but where else will you find this amount of value on a risk profile that is so sensible? Free agents aren’t a great way to build a team, but as far as free agents go, this was a good one.

I think the secret is in the fact that the market still looks for a little bit of sizzle. Maybe they over-prioritize that “Who would you want on the mound in Game 7?” factor. To get to Game 7, you have to get through Game 162 and a guy like James Shields is invaluable to that effort. The Padres got just the guy to help them do it. —Russell Carleton

Fantasy Impact

James Shields

Petco Park is certainly not the worst landing spot for James Shields, though it’s important not to overreact too much. His fly ball and HR/FB rates are both middle of the road these days, though that wasn’t the case for the latter figure as recently as 2012. A significantly more fastball-heavy arsenal, highlighted by the development of a cutter he deployed every fourth pitch in 2014, has helped him reign in the home run rate. While the San Diego marine layer certainly won’t hurt his efforts to this end, it should be noted that Kauffman was actually a tougher yard to leave last season. It should also be noted that while PECOTA projects Kansas City’s defense to pace all of MLB with 32.5 FRAA, San Diego projects to a perfectly mediocre 1.1 mark. Other than switching leagues, the net difference in his surrounding context just isn’t that significant.

There are certainly questions here, given the significant and ongoing evolution of Shields’ repertoire. His whiff rate has been in a free fall over the past couple seasons, though a large chunk of that decline has come at the expense of his increasingly-left-on-the-shelf change. And he made excellent strides last year in offsetting the lost strikeouts with fewer walks to keep his WHIP in check. Regardless of how he gets to his value, Shields has proven one of the more durable and consistent starters in baseball, with eight consecutive seasons cracking 200 innings and a FIP between 3.42 and 3.59 in each of the past four.

Shields finished 28th among starters last year with $20 of mixed league value after checking in 21st in 2013. He’s currently going off the board 23rd among starting pitchers and knocking on the door of the top 100 overall, which looks about right. He’ll be worth monitoring over the coming weeks, however, to see if his ADP ticks north as owners overreact to the signing, in which case he’ll find himself in danger of overpricing. —Wilson Karaman

Thank you for reading

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Thanks Russell for introducing me to the Binary Logistic Regression concept. I would have never guessed hearing about it in a baseball forum.
Very interesting. Russell, do you think it's likely genetics we are looking at here? It could also be they work hard and have good mechanics but this seems like something you would expect to be affected by age
I'm wondering about the impact on their other rotation options. I assume this pushes Despaigne and Erlin into a battle for the fifth spot. How do we handicap that race?
I would guess that it'll be Morrow out of ST and maybe Josh Johnson sometime during the year. I'd guess that Despaigne and Erlin would either go to the BP or more likely AAA because they're under control. Erlin might have the best chance to win the job over Morrow because he's a lefty.
It's possible, but I view Morrow as more of a bullpen arm, and Johnson a DL arm.
Morrow is equally qualified for the DL arm slot as Johnson ;-)
If the other team is starting Clayton Kershaw in a playoff game I would be confident, from recent performances, that my team would score plenty of runs. Now if that other team was starting the MadBum it might be a different story.
After watching baseball for the past 40 years, I think the question is whether a pitcher (capable of such a thing) is willing to find his absolute top gear and risk the rest of his career to get his goal. Orel Hershiser. Steve Stone. Some guys can do a lot if willing for it to all end today if it does not work out.

Obviously, contracts cannot be structured to reward such sacrifice. That is why it is so heroic when it happens.
Interesting that Shields is referred to as a 4 win-ish type player, when WARP shows him as never achiever 4 WARP in a season once in his entire career. 3.4 is his high. 2.9 in 2014. 1.6 projected for 2015. Seems like their is a discrepancy between his stats here and how he is talked about.
anyone want to explain how that season came when his ERA was above 4, but all the seasons with much better ERA, WHIP, FIP were 2.9 or lower?
Different run scoring environment is the best answer I have.
It's not a perfect analogy, but I keep thinking of Shields as a latter-day lesser version of Mike Mussina - very dependable, very durable . . . but Mussina spent a decade plus being a sports car, so when the fall came, he was "just" a Camry in his mid to late 30s. Except that a Camry is still pretty good!

Shields is not, and never has been, a sports car. When his fall comes, what does a Camry become? I think that is why Shields didn't get a huge contract. Teams saw the profile and figured the risk of him being half a Camry at 35, 36, 37 was too high. The risk to the Padres is a bit less due to Petco and playing in the non-DH league, I think, and still they probably got an awfully good deal.