When the BP staff was asked to make their annual pre-season predictions on the eve of Opening Day, yours truly typed the following name in the AL Cy Young column: James Shields. While such a prognostication doesn’t exactly qualify as an extreme stretch-the Rays‘ right-hander also garnered a second-place vote from Will Carroll and a third-place vote from Clay Davenport-he has yet to establish himself as one of the game’s elite pitchers. That may be about to change.
Just 27 years old, Shields has already established himself as a workhorse, and his 430 innings over the past two seasons rank him second in the American League behind only Roy Halladay. Featuring outstanding command, Shields has also ranked among the league leaders in strikeouts-to-walks ratio (4.53) and fewest walks per 9 innings (1.59). His 14.7 per pitches per inning are sixth-best in the major leagues over the 2007-2008 campaigns. Shields, who won 14 games last season, plus his only World Series start, talked about his approach to pitching during the Rays’ opening-series visit to Boston.
James Shields: There’s no doubt about it. I think that every pitcher in baseball, even in Little League and in college, is a student of the game. You can ask guys who have played 15 years in the big leagues, and they’re probably still learning about the game of baseball and how to pitch. You do that all the way up until you retire. Here’s the thing, everything is more advanced now. Hitters get better every single year. These hitters are watching film in between at-bats; these hitters are doing a lot of stuff that you have to keep up with. It’s just like technology, man; technology keeps getting better and better, and so does the hitting.
DL: Is it possible to think too much on the mound?
JS: It’s easy. It’s easy to think too much. I’m the type of guy that… I don’t think you should have to think on the mound. I think that you should do all of your preparation before you go out there, and once you’ve done that you make your assessments and adjustments in the game.
DL: Leading up to a game, are you typically thinking more about pitching itself, or about the opposing hitters?
JS: I’m definitely thinking about each and every hitter. I like to go pitch by pitch; I like to go hitter by hitter. Like I said before, I make my adjustments as I go. I think that one of the things about pitching is that you have your repertoire, you have your four pitches, or your three pitches, or whatever you have. I have four pitches, and I like to utilize them in all different kinds of ways. So you definitely have to think a little bit, and the preparation is going to take care of itself.
DL: Do you practice visualization at all?
JS: I do, in my own little way. I’m not one of those guys who is meditating before the game, trying to visualize the win, and visualize the game, but I definitely visualize each hitter, maybe the night before or that day. Not necessarily how I’m going to pitch to them, but I kind of visualize the game in such a way that it’s almost a replay when I go out there.
DL: When you’re on the mound, is your focus entirely on the glove, or are you seeing a bigger picture than that?
JS: I definitely see… I have tunnel vision when I pitch. I think all pitchers have some sort of tunnel vision in their own way, and you kind of have to. If you pitch in front of 50,000 people on a nightly basis, you have to zone everybody out. You have to focus in on that one pitch and keep your eye on the catcher as best that you can, because if you don’t, you can lose focus pretty quick.
DL: Do you ever look at the hitter’s face during an at-bat?
JS: Always. I look at the hitters every pitch. I like to read them. I like to read what they’re trying to do; I like to read their feet; I like to read their shoulders and their hands. If I see a guy getting frustrated up there, it’s kind of an advantage for a pitcher, just like it is for a hitter seeing a pitcher getting frustrated on the mound. If he feels that the pitcher isn’t 100 percent confident in what he’s got, he’s got an advantage. So yeah, I base all of my pitches, every single at-bat, on what they look like.
DL: Recognizing frustration is one thing. How do you take advantage of it?
JS: I think there are certain ways of doing it. But each hitter is different, you know. I’ve had guys where you can see it in their face, and I’ve had guys where they kind of bait you. I have hitters bait me all the time. They kind of act like they look frustrated, but they’re really sitting on one pitch. Maybe they think that I’m going to throw that one pitch; maybe I’ll throw a changeup, or something, that they might be sitting on. But when I look at their face, there is no doubt about it… I think that you have to have some sort of intimidation factor. You have to have a lot of confidence out there. As a pitcher, you want to let the hitter know that you have that confidence.
DL: Could you stand on the mound blindfolded and throw a strike?
JS: No chance. It’s… you feel different every time you go out there. Every time you pitch, your body feels different, and a lot of people probably don’t understand that. Starting pitchers probably feel good about once a month when they’re out there, so you kind of have to know your body a little bit. You have to be in control. Sometimes you’re on, and sometimes you’re not, and that’s just the way it is.
DL: Do you know how you’re feeling when you walk in from the bullpen, even before you’ve thrown the first pitch?
JS: You know, every time we kind of trick ourselves into thinking that we feel good that day. But you do find out after you’re done with your bullpen whether you feel good or not, and what kind of stuff you have. You can be in the bullpen and your curveball might not be that good that day, so you might have to go with your changeup or your cut fastball, or whatever. When I’m in the bullpen, I kind of feel out each one of my pitches. That’s kind of how I judge how I’m going to throw the first couple of innings.
DL: Let’s say it’s the first inning and you’re thinking that you have no-hit stuff that day. Does that impact your approach at all?
JS: I don’t think so. It just gives you self confidence. But I never tell myself that I have no-hit stuff. I tell myself that I have good stuff that day, and if I execute my pitches I’ll be successful.
DL: When I interviewed Andy Sonnanstine last summer, he described himself as a “behind-the-scenes strike-thrower.” Is that an accurate description of Andy?
JS: Yeah, it is. That’s kind of Andy in a nutshell, man. He’s the type of guy who comes in every day and gets his work in, and a lot of people may not understand just what kind of strike-thrower that he really is. After he’s been in the league a couple more years, guys are going to really understand, and he may not be behind the scenes anymore, if you know what I mean.
DL: Are you a behind-the-scenes strike-thrower?
JS: I don’t know if I consider myself a behind-the-scenes strike-thrower. I think I’m definitely a guy who likes to throw strikes and stay consistent. I try not to walk guys. The guys who… I’ve pitched over 200 innings the last couple of years. This is only my third full year in the big leagues, and… I guess I consider myself to be a strike-thrower and a guy who likes to eat up innings. I’ve always said in my interviews before that I feel like I’m more or less an old-school pitcher. I’m not going to go out there and strike everybody out. I’m not going to overpower or overmatch anybody. But I am going to go out there and keep my team in the game, and try to go as deep as I can.
DL: How important is it to understand what you can and can’t do on the mound?
JS: I think that every single athlete needs to learn who they are and what kind of player they are. The best evaluator is yourself. Self-evaluating is a part of the game, and you need to do that, because I’m the only one who is out there on the mound that every fifth day. I’m the only one who is going to be able to correct myself. I mean, you can’t have somebody stand behind you on the mound and tell you what to do, and what to pitch, and how to throw it. You have to be a good self-evaluator and know yourself.
DL: You’ve had far less success pitching on the road than you have at home. Is that something that you need to fix-not the results, but the process?
JS: I think the process definitely needs to be fixed. There’s no doubt. I feel that the last couple of years I haven’t been as consistent as I want to be as far as my routine goes. I talked to Joe Maddon and Andrew Friedman about it during spring training, and it’s not a big concern of mine. It’s just one of those things where I haven’t done as well on the road as I have at home, so we’re going to try to have my routine be a little more consistent this year and see what happens.
DL: Any final thoughts?
JS: I think that, as far as I go… as a starting pitcher, you have to go out there and take the ball every fifth day, and you’ve got to have enough confidence in yourself, and you have to have enough confidence in the team behind you. And you have to stay aggressive. As far as pitching goes, if you stay aggressive and have confidence in what you do, and you have the ability to go out there and stay healthy and pitch every five days, I think your pitching is going to be all right. You’re going to have a pretty good chance of being successful.