The White Sox traded for James Shields, as you may have heard. It hasn't ended well for Chicago. Shields has been awful, and he'd been pretty bad for a brief while before the Sox acquired him. What has happened to Big Game James? Has his stuff backed up? Is he cursed? Did he offend Jobu? Has he been broken?
The answer may lie in the annals of history.
October 7th, 2005. A day which shall live in infamy. Yes, on that day, Albert Pujols attempted to murder Brad Lidge on national television. He nearly succeeded.
The then-Astros closer was tasked with facing Pujols that night. It was Game Five of the 2005 National League Championship Series. To that point, Lidge had been excellent. He had been excellent since he debuted in 2002. In 2005, he had saved 42 games and struck out 103 batters in 70.2 innings. Lidge was one of the best relievers in baseball, and a clash of the titans was to take place at Minute Maid Park.
It didn’t end well for Lidge.
With one swing, Albert Pujols broke Brad Lidge, and nearly broke the damn stadium. His bat briefly transformed into a Weapon of Closer Destruction, launching a baseball up against the steel beams and buttresses that hold the roof of the building up. By some minor miracle, the ball did not punch a hole through them. In that moment, Pujols was Goliath, dismissing David as one dismisses an annoying fly.
Destruction, thy name is Pujols.
The Astros would go on to win the series and face Chicago in the World Series, but something broke inside Lidge that night. He went 0-2 in the World Series, giving up a walk-off homer in Game Two (to Scott Podsednik!) and surrendered the run that would doom Houston in Game Four. Lidge had a 5.28 ERA in 2006 and gave up twice as many home runs as he did in 2005. His home run problem followed him into 2007, and he briefly lost the closer’s job in the first half. Though he had a brilliant 2008 in Philadelphia, going 41 for 41 in save opportunities, it would be the last time that he was productive.
Perhaps it was natural wear and tear that did Lidge in. Perhaps it was the sight of Pujols swaggering out of the batter’s box and a ball fighting the very laws of physics to not be vaporized that was seared into his mind, an image that he simply couldn’t shake. We may never know.
Which brings us to James Shields.
You may not recognize that Shields was involved in the most famous moment in baseball history, a moment that happened this very year. Here’s a refresher.
Bartolo Colon is not the prime version of Albert Pujols. He is not a mass of muscle and sinew that was blessed with incredible feel for hitting. He does not strike fear into pitchers; or at least he didn’t before this magical moment. He is not prone to flicking his wrists and accidentally sending baseballs into the next area code. But, like Pujols, Colon can claim that he has hit a home run in the big leagues.
There had been rumors of the power that Colon sometimes displays in batting practice. If he could just get into one, many thought. And then, he did.
Shields gave Big Bart a 90-MPH middle-in gift. Colon unwrapped the present, read the card, laughed at the funny picture on the front of the card, and took his new toy out for a spin. It was a time of pure joy for the Mets, for their fans, and for sports fans everywhere — indeed, for almost everyone.
Here was Colon, over the hill and overflowing with a healthy appetite, having us believe that almost anyone could hit a home run. The long ball is the pinnacle of American sports achievement. In theory, almost anyone can carry a football into an endzone for a touchdown, or hook a basketball just enough so that it goes through a hoop. But to hit a home run? To make strong enough contact with a little baseball to send it high into the air and more than 300 feet away? That's something. And there was Colon, doing it while looking like your delicatessen-owning uncle.
And there was Shields.
When asked about what he threw Bartolo Colon for the Mets' pitcher first home run of of his career, James Shields reply" "Next question."— Jay Paris (@jparis_sports) May 8, 2016
There is great joy in watching a lovable goofball do something incredible. There is little joy in being the one to make a pitch so bad that even Bartolo Colon could hook it down the left field line and into the seats in front of the Western Metal Supply Company. A pitcher’s job is to get outs, especially when that out is represented by the opposing pitcher, especially when that pitcher, again, looks like your delicatessen-owning uncle. Giving up a home run to Bartolo Colon hurts if you are James Shields, who is known as Big Game James Shields and once finished third in the Cy Young Award voting. Shields was traded for to lead the Royals to the promised land. He was the demi-ace of the Rays. He entered the year with 127 wins to his name.
A portly 43-year-old took him deep.
James Shields before the Bartolo Colon HR:— Ben Diamond (@_BenDiamond) June 14, 2016
8 starts, 52 IP, 3.12 ERA
James Shields after the Bartolo Colon HR
5 starts, 24.1 IP, 7.77 ERA
We can't say for sure, but something inside Shields may have broken that day. The above statistic doesn't include the seven runs (six earned) that Shields surrendered in five innings on Monday night. He walked four and struck out just one while allowing nine hits, one of which went over the fence. The White Sox managed to win that game due to some extra-inning heroics, but Shields didn’t do much to aid that cause. Shields posted a ghastly -.361 WPA on the night.
It was the third straight start of horror for Shields. Ten earned runs against Seattle. Seven against Washington. Prior to that, he hadn’t given up more than three since the day that Colon took him deep, and had pitched at least six full innings in each of those games. The beating he took at the hands of the Mariners was his final game as a Padre, and the White Sox had hoped that it was nothing more than just one of those games, one of those blips that even the best pitchers have every now and then.
Apparently, there’s more to it than that. Perhaps Shields is hurt, or perhaps there’s something out of tune in his delivery, as his horizontal release points have altered somewhat since the Colon game.. Perhaps he’s having an historic run of bad luck.
Perhaps he lays awake at night and thinks about being made fun of. Hah, he gave up a home run to Bartolo Colon?! Hah, he’s been traded to a team that desperately needed a breath of fresh air and has failed?! It's a hell of a thing to watch the world crumble before your very eyes. Since that fateful day, James Shields has had to wonder what could have been. What if he hadn’t grooved that fastball to Colon? What if he had pitched better in the World Series with the Royals? What if he hadn't crashed and burned upon his arrival in Chicago?
The crowd is looking at the ball jump off Colon’s bat. The catcher and umpire are staring wide-eyed, trying to remember if they’d ever seen Colon hit something that hard. Bartolo is about to get a fit of the giggles. Shields is only just realizing what he’s done.
We don't know if Bartolo Colon broke James Shields. The results immediately following that game indicate that this isn’t the case. It's a simple question created by narrative run amok. But we’ve seen this happen before. We’ve seen poor Brad Lidge be crushed by the baseball version of Conan the Barbarian and subsequently wander lost in the desert. Has Shields fallen victim to a delayed version of the same curse?
The fans on the South Side pray that it isn't true. Only time will tell.
Nicolas Stellini is a featured writer at Beyond the Box Score. He also writes for Baseball Prospectus and BP Bronx. You can follow him on Twitter at @StelliniTweets.