In his past eight starts, James Shields has given up 38 runs, 34 earned. During that stretch, his 5. 43 ERA is approaching a humiliating level of inadequacy. He has given up five or more runs in four of of those eight starts, which has unsettled even his most loyal fans. He used to take the mound to the roaring cheers of fans who wore the unmistakable expressions of adoration. Now the cheers carry an air of polite encouragement that can barely mask the strong sense of apprehension.
Investigating deeper into his performance reveals a pitcher caught in the adamant snare of Murphy’s Law. Anything outside of Shield’s control has conspired against him.
When James Shields is pitching, an alarming number of groundballs have been skating by infielders and batters have been outrunning throws on choppy infield dribblers. Year in and year out, American League batters reliably hit around .250 on groundballs. It has been constant for years. In his past eight starts, hitters have a stupefying .310 batting average on groundballs that has helped contribute to a very high .344 BAbip during that period of time.
Such a high number of groundballs have been shooting through the infield that Shields is getting almost no double plays to help him out. James Shields has the lowest percentage of double plays ever in his career (8%).
Even fly balls aren’t siding with James Shields. He’s given up 10 home runs in those eight starts and five of those home runs cleared the wall by less than 10 feet. Those are the types of fly balls that, often as not, fall for doubles or are caught on the warning track by this elite Royals outfield. Unfortunately for Shields, they’re all ending up on the wrong side of the fence. Even though his FIP considers him only slightly unlucky during this period (4.98 FIP vs. 5.43 ERA), xFIP considers him cursed by the Gods. xFIP, which equalizes the home run ball to adjust for the random luck of getting an extra nudge of loft, indicates that Shields should have around a 4.34 ERA during these past eight starts.
His low strikeout rate in the past few weeks (14%; 5.75 K/9) certainly isn’t helping his effectiveness, but even taking that into account, batters are putting an abnormally high number of balls in play against Shields. He’s had less foul outs, too. This 8-start streak has Shields’ in play-percentage-grazing 75%, by far and away the most he’s ever had in play against him. That’s higher than Jeremy Guthrie‘s career rate of 74%.
He’s not pitching much differently than he has in the past. He stopped throwing his changeup as much against righties and substituted it with his cutter, which breaks away from right-handers. He’s throwing slightly more sinkers to lefties. That’s about all. But he can’t seem to escape the bad luck, no matter what he throws. BAbip is elevated on every single one of his pitches by .060-.100.
And it’s not like he’s throwing everything over the middle of the plate or missing out of the zone. Here’s how he’s thrown before this bad stretch:
Here’s where he’s located pitches during the bad stretch. He’s throwing the same number of strikes as before:
The way he has pitched lately does not throw up any red flags. Sure, less strikeout means more balls in play, but James Shields has been getting somewhat weaker contact that should lead to a reasonable number of outs. His line drive rate before this abysmal streak was 24%. During the abysmal streak, it’s been 23%. His groundball/flyball ratio is .84, above average and above his career ratio.
He’s been bludgeoned and kicked around by bad luck lately. It has been a horror movie on loop. Shields apparently asked directions at the wrong creepy abandoned house in the middle of the woods, because he’s been massacred.
There is one thing James Shields can work on to help himself out. His changeup has ever so slightly straightened out. He may want to work with Dave Eiland on that. It could help get his strikeout number back in line with his career rate. Other than than, he’ll just have ride out the Gods’ wrath. And us along with him.