Every time the postseason starts, I usually subconsciously pick a player I'm most excited to see. It's usually a player who has been pretty dominant, especially this year, and is making his first postseason appearance.
I think most people, whether they were using this logic or not, would have been looking forward to seeing Mike Trout in his first postseason action. And I'm with you, but you didn't know about my pitcher bias. The player I was truly most looking forward to seeing was James Shields.
He's made postseason appearances before, I know, but never really as "the guy" -- and I'll contend he still hasn't. Nobody was more disappointing to me than the man who calls himself 'Big Game.' And I think the team that signs him this off-season should think very hard about how un-Big Game he is.
Make no mistake, clutch doesn't exist. Madison Bumgarner is not clutch. James Shields is not unclutch. Everybody on the Kansas City Royals this postseason either lived up to or exceeded expectations other than Shields. Granted, those expectations were higher, but Yordano Ventura, Lorenzo Cain and Jarrod Dyson didn't go in with nicknames pre-supposing their brilliance. Terrance Gore even had a few of his own Dave Roberts lite moments, where everyone in the ballpark knows that he has to steal a base and he does.
Now that we have a somewhat sustained look at Shields in big games, let's take a closer look at why free agent buyers should be cautious. According to Justin Perline’s Free Agency Calculator (which is fantastic and you should absolutely go play with it as soon as you’re finished reading this article), someone of James Shields’ ilk is due a contract worth roughly $22 million. Or, at least that’s what he can be expected to get judging by previous contracts given. Why spend that kind of money when you can get, for instance, the two-years-younger Francisco Liriano at $12 million?
Let’s at least compare the two pitchers.
Although way less consistent and more injury prone, Liriano shows some pretty impressive numbers beside Shields. In every way, Liriano was a better pitcher than Shields in 2013; in 2014, they stayed fairly comparable. And when it comes down to it, Liriano will probably end up costing the team he signs with half of what Shields gets paid.
Don’t get me wrong, I still like Shields. But narrative is going to mark him as one of the key reasons the Royals made it into the playoffs. Maybe we believe that narrative, but then why don’t we hear that of Liriano, who did largely the same thing for the Pirates? What’s more, Shields didn’t help his profile come postseason time.
The only thing that scares me away from Liriano is the 4.34 FIP and 4.14 xFIP of 2012, but beside these numbers, it looks pretty normal.
But this is less of a recommendation of Liriano than a warning for bullish James Shields fans. (Also, who actually knew Francisco Liriano was younger than James Shields? Did this only surprise me?) Granted, every pitcher faces better batters in the postseason, naturally inflating numbers. Yordano Ventura faced the same fate of inflated metrics over the small sample size of the postseason. The team that throws a massive contract at James Shields may make the mistake of expecting an ace. though, and I would strongly caution against trusting him as "the guy" of a postseason contender again.
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All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.
Michael Bradburn is a Contributor for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @mwbii.