It’s been a strange season for James Shields. He’s striking out far more batters than he ever has, walking more than ever, and giving up home runs at a truly impressive rate. Impressive because he’s given up so many home runs only once before, in 2010. Also impressive because he plays in San Diego now, and San Diego isn’t really a park that allows a lot of home runs.
And he’s doing all this while generating more whiffs and allowing less contact overall than he ever has. Please regard, from Brooks Baseball:
There’s at least a small uptick for each pitch, in terms of whiffs, and a really significant one with Shields’ curveball. Not surprisingly, Shields has also thrown more curveballs this year. Please regard again, this time via a table:
We see here another big jump in curveballs, one that hasn't been matched before from Shields, though he came pretty close in 2011. The difference between this year and 2011 is that Shields was very good in 2011, posting career bests with a 2.82 ERA, 3.42 FIP, and 4.6 fWAR. He’s not been so good this year, with his highest ERA, FIP, and home run rate since 2010, but bad luck with homers has certainly played a part too.
Shields has typically been at least a little dinger-prone, with a career HR/FB ratio at 11.5%. That’s something he can live with. He has lived with it, really, and he’s been a good pitcher with that rate. But his HR/FB rate sits at 17.2% right now, and the league average is just under 11%. For a little more context, Shields' mark is the fourth-highest among qualified starters right now, so that difference of six percentage points is quite significant.
So, sure, there’s been a fair bit of bad luck, and I’m definitely not one to tell James Shields what pitches to throw. If I had a suggestion though, maybe throw the curveball more often? Because everything else is getting crushed this year.
Batters have posted isolated power numbers of .245 and .211 against Shields' hard stuff (fastball and cutter) and his changeup, respectively. For reference, Nelson Cruz's ISO is .246, and Joey Votto’s is .211. That might not be the fairest way to judge Shields’ pitches, but I think it gets the idea across. Of course, there’s been a shift in ISO for his breaking ball, too, which isn’t surprising when we consider that ridiculous HR/FB ratio.
James Shields is striking out more than 10 batters per nine innings and walking nearly three per nine. If you prefer percentages, he’s striking out about 27 percent of the guys he faces and walking 7.7 percent, all of which are career highs. The home run rate will likely come down — it would be fairly remarkable to see that mark stay higher than 17 percent all year when the league standard is about 11 percent. Shields has made some changes with his curveball usage, and it's been useful for the most part. The strikeouts and whiffs are great. With a 3.21 xFIP, we might see some better overall results for Shields soon.
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Murphy Powell is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @murphypowell.