The Kansas City Royals, needing to shore up a starting rotation that lagged behind a great bullpen last year, took a big gamble this offseason. They traded away über-prospect Wil Myers and got in return Shields, an extraordinarily durable starting pitcher (nicknamed "Complete Game James") who finished 3rd in AL Cy Young voting in 2011.
- Four-seam fastball: 91–95 mph. Used against righties and lefties, although slightly more against righties, he tends to throw it early in the count to get ahead. He keeps it down in the zone well and is not afraid to throw it inside to righties. Like his other pitches, it has actually gained speed over the years—a likely cause of its increased effectiveness over that time. It was tagged for a .348 average in 2009 and .339 in 2010, among the worst in baseball those years. Last year, by contrast, hitters managed only a .268 average. It has good rise and average tailing movement for a four-seamer. It has become a decent offering after being a weakness early in his career.
- Sinker: 91–94 mph. Unlike most pitchers who throw one, Shields uses his sinker in roughly equal amounts against lefties and righties. Like his four-seamer, it’s typically thrown early in the count. He has a very pronounced tendency to use it on the inside half (and off the plate) against righties and away to lefties, where its tailing action will have the most effect. Nobody would mistake it for a Jonny Venters' sinker, but it has good drop relative to the four-seamer. It doesn’t generate a huge number of ground balls, but hitters typically make poor contact against it anyway—its .260 BABIP was one of the best among starters last year. This is another pitch whose value Shields has bolstered the last couple of years.
- Cutter: 89–92 mph. Although it’s a frequent offering to both lefties and righties, he likes to use it later in counts against lefties than he does against righties. Perhaps because he’s using it in those counts, righties hit it much better last year (.400 BABIP) than lefties did (.321 BABIP). It has pretty good cutting action that he will use freely around the strike zone, either to "back door" against lefties or sweep away from righties as the need arises. It's not that much of a swing-and-miss weapon (18% whiff rate in 2012), but it probably makes his other fastballs more effective.
- Curveball: 79–82 mph. Thrown with a "spike" grip that gives it some hard, biting action, Shields’ curve regressed in 2012 (.271 average, 28% whiff/swing) after a fantastic 2011 (.176, 34%). One thing that did not change was its ability to induce ground balls, with at least 60% of batted balls hit on the ground each year. He tends to throw it in the middle of the count, leaving his excellent changeup to do the dirty work of striking guys out.
- Changeup: 84–88 mph. Easily his best offering, Shields’s changeup is by far his most common pitch in 2-strike counts and when he is ahead in the count. The reason for that is that it consistently generates whiffs (38%, 38%, and 37% of swings the last three years) and produces extremely low batting averages against (.214, .175, and .183). A true weapon, Shields rarely leaves this pitch up in the zone for batters to hit.
Shields has always given up a fair share of home runs, averaging 1.1 per 9 innings over his career. His walk rates have remained pretty stable since 2009, at 5.7–6.7% of hitters, or 2.1–2.3 per 9 innings. His strikeout rates, perhaps as result of his better velocity, have actually increased over that time from 18% to almost 24% (6.8 per 9 to 8.8 per 9).
His BABIP hovers around the league average, with his only exceptions being a bad 2010 (.341) and great 2011 (.258), corresponding to a terrible ERA one year (5.18) and a much better one the next (2.83). They both regressed last season, to .292 and 3.52, respectively. I expect his 2012 numbers to be more reliable predictors of 2013 than either 2010 or 2011’s were, as his 2012 season was much closer in line with his career averages. In other words, Shields will probably yield something close to a league-average BABIP in 2013.
I’m not in love with his mechanics—he externally rotates his pitching arm too much in his delivery for my taste—but you can’t argue with results. He has started exactly 33 games for five consecutive years, for a total of 165 starts. Only Justin Verlander has more. Ever since he underwent shoulder surgery as a minor leaguer in 2002, Shields has not had any kind of arm problem causing him to miss time. He’s 31 this year, but without a history of arm troubles I wouldn’t expect him to be a Tommy John surgery candidate.
Shields is a serviceable fielder, with a .947 fielding percentage and average-to-good range. Not a liability. He’s also been pretty good at holding runners throughout his career, and he somehow picked off 12 runners in 2011. (Don’t expect that to happen again this year, though.)
I’m not going to wade into whether Kansas City made a worthwhile trade to get Shields, but I will say that he should provide the organization excellent value in 2013. He will anchor an improved Royals rotation and is the kind of innings eater that saves young bullpens from overuse.
As I said above, a repeat of his masterful 2011 season is optimistic. It would also be unusual for him to continue gaining velocity as he has the last few years. Still, his improved strikeout rate and track record point to a solid season that will make his $8 million salary seem like a bargain.