I love baseball statistics and statistical analysis. The problem is I’m not very good with numbers. I’m an English teacher and student. The only numbers I encounter are dinner checks and the sad areas of my bathroom scale, How many McDoubles did I eat?! So, when I thought it would be cool if someone considered what type of impact James Shields will have statistically on the Royals, I thought, of course, that I was just the man for the job.
What I offer the viewing public is a hazy answer to these two questions: What would it have looked like if Shields had been a part of the Royals rotation in 2012? And by extension, to what extent might he impact 2013? Obviously, there are many flaws in this inquiry; most obvious among them is the person conducting it. But also, the high level of turnover makes the 2013 rotation virtually incomparable to the 2012 rotation. But using my favorite friends conjecture and speculation I’ll find a way to make it seem like I’ve stumbled upon some grand statistical truth. Or not. Yeah?
Ok. Check the methods. I started by constructing the numbers for the Royals starters from last year (this is why they may look a tenth off from other sites). I actually added up all the numbers from only their starters and did the averages and everything. So, essentially what I’m doing is replacing an average Royals starting pitcher from 2012 with Shield’s 2012. This is a little disingenuous because in reality, Shields would have crowded out some of the worst performances so chalk it up to a conservative statistical exercise. I chose to use Shields’ 2012 not just because it’s the obvious choice to compare to the Royals’ starting pitching in 2012 but also because it’s pretty representative of what people should expect from Shields in 2013. This inquiry also doesn’t account for Shields’ ability to eat innings—meaning if Shields had been in the rotation last year the Royals starters would have gone more total innings. It’s just a replacement of his innings for average Royals innings.
Here’s what I came up with:
Royals* Shields Royals w/Shields
Earned Runs 495 89 457
Hits 981 208 938
Walks 315 58 292
ERA 5.00 3.52 4.62
WHIP 1.46 1.17 1.38
*These are numbers for all 13 pitchers who started a game for the Royals last season
There you have it, a pretty remarkable difference. Almost half-a-run in improved ERA is pretty significant for one pitcher to bring to the table. He can have that type of impact because he pitches so many innings. His 227.2 innings pitched represent more than a quarter of the total number of innings Royals starters pitched in 2012—890. That is both incredible and not surprising. It’s incredible that Shields gives his team so many innings; it’s also incredible how little the Royals starters pitched last year. So it’s not surprising that Shields’ numbers make such a large dent. In innings, he’s worth 1.25 Royals starting pitchers in 2012, which if you’re a stats person is just nuts.
How do the numbers with Shields in the Royals lineup compare to the rest of the league? Still not great, but better. American League average for starting pitching ERA was 4.39, which isn’t too far away from the Royals numbers with Shields in the rotation. Last year, they were 11th in starting pitcher ERA (AL). Personally, I was shocked to learn they weren’t last or next to last. With Shields, they would have only moved up to 10th, but remember this is a pretty conservative estimate. I think it’s fair to say that in reality, with him replacing the worst performances, they might have made it near the 7-8 range.*
*This is off topic, but sometimes I wonder how this team even won 72 games last year. They were just not very good at all.
Looking ahead, I’m thinking this provides a little rosy glow to a trade many, including me, have criticized as short-sighted and reckless. Assuming the Royals get a Shields performance circa the last two years, he’ll greatly impact the rotation. The odds of a 12 game losing streak decrease dramatically, and there’s something to be said for playing with a lead entering the sixth inning occasionally. Consider that no starting pitcher for the Royals was worth more than 1.8 WAR last season, and Shields was worth 4.3, and this trade makes 2013 look hopeful. Are the Royals the favorite in the AL Central? No. But they’re in the conversation for sure.
I imagine the Royals have the chance to make it to around 4.00 ERA as a starting staff next season if everything falls into place. This would be a HUGE help. Last season, that would have been good enough for 5th in the American League just ahead of the Angels. That, of course, will require good seasons from Jeremy Guthrie, Ervin Santana, and Wade Davis as well. That’s probably asking too much, but what the hell, dream big.
Thanks to copious amounts of propaganda and time to emotionally detach from the transaction, I’m starting to feel much better about it. Is it a HUGE gamble? Yes. Essentially, Moore is betting that in the next two years Shields, and in the next four years Davis, provide enough value in helping the team win to make up for the lost value of Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi from 2015-2018, at least. That could mean increasing revenue via winning so they can spend to sign position players long term. It could mean buying time to let Jorge Bonifacio develop and counting on him to become a legitimate everyday outfielder at the major league level. Whatever the scenario, it’s a huge gamble.
But I’m starting to fall on the side of those who think the Royals had to gamble at some point. Yes, the price was high; that’s gambling. They don’t give money to people who don’t bet. Trust me, I’ve tried that strategy and it doesn’t work. The alternative may have been to keep Myers and live with a very uncertain rotation for another year or two or more, essentially guaranteeing a non-contending team in 2013 and maybe again in 2014. People can quote all the Anibal Sanchez numbers they want; he was never coming to Kansas City. Anything less than Shields gave them an even worse shot at competing. So, when does that end? Dayton Moore decided it would end in 2013 and that he would worry about 2015 later. That might be the best move for the Royals right now. It sounds like hedging my bets, but it’s true that we won’t know until 2016 or so—maybe sooner if the Royals make the playoffs in 2013 or 2014.
I’ll leave you with a quote from one of my favorite movies, Rounders, that I think perfectly sums up the argument for why this trade might be a good one for the Royals (I say ‘might’). In it Mike McDermott, played by the awesomely badass Matt Damon, is torn between going for a big score in a poker game or playing it safe and walking away:
“I told Worm you can’t lose what you don’t put in the middle.” (He pauses for dramatic effect as he’s nearly out the door)