Back in 2011, James Shields had what may have been his finest season in the major leagues. He only had a 16-12 record, but the win/loss total was deceptive. During the year, Shields put together a 2.82 ERA and a 1.043 WHiP, striking out 225 batters in his 249.1 innings of work. That year, Shields also led the American League in complete games (11) and shutouts (4). He made his only All-Star appearance, finished third in the Cy Young vote, and even received some votes for MVP.
That season also marked the least amount that Shields used his cutter. Relying predominantly upon his fastball, curve and change, Shields threw his cutter only 15.52% of the time. When he did use it, the cutter was quite effective. Although opponents swung and missed on only 6.71% of the cutters that Shields threw, he only gave up a .228 batting average and a .354 slugging percentage.
Despite his change and curve being more effective than the cutter that season, both pitches have seen a decrease in usage as James Shields has come to rely upon the cutter even more. Thus far in 2014, Shields has used his cutter 23.99% of the time, making it his second most used pitch, behind his fourseamer. His curve, which he used 20.87% of the time in 2011, has dropped to a 12.16% usage, going from his third most used offering to fifth.
That increase in usage has not resulted in better results. In fact, opponents, as they are seeing the cutter more frequently, have produced a .283 batting average and a .439 slugging percentage. Only his rarely used slider has resulted in a higher batting average, and the slider and fourseamer have a higher slugging percentage.
When James Shields went through his struggles over an eight start span from May 24th through July 1st, his reliance upon the cutter may have been partially to blame. In May and June, Shields threw 289 cutters, using that pitch 24.78% of the time. Even though Shields got 28 swings and misses on the cutter, opponents had also hammered the pitch when making contact. In May, the opposition hit .455 against the cutter. Even though the batting average against the cutter dropped to .281 in June, Shields still had a .500 slugging percentage on that pitch. In May, opponents slugged at a .659 rate against the cutter.
Part of the problem was that Shields was leaving his cutter over the plate, particularly to right handed hitters. Instead of moving the pitch off the plate, Shields was essentially serving up batting practice, as right handed hitters simply did not miss the offering. Compare the charts, provided by brooksbaseball.net, as to the end result with the cutter against righties during his struggles and since.
While right handed hitters are still doing a good amount of damage to the cutter on the lower part of the plate, James Shields has had more success with the pitch as of late. That may be the result of Shields mixing his other pitches in more frequently. In July, Shields used the cutter 16.59% of the time, making it the fourth pitch in his arsenal. Although his usage has increased to 21.74% thus far in August, he has had a great deal of success with the cutter, as he has given up a .231 batting average and slugging percentage on the pitch.
Although the cutter is still a major part of Shields’ repertoire, this may be a case in point to the old axiom “less is more.” By mixing in his other pitches, Shields has been able to use the cutter to keep the opposition off balance over the past month and a half, getting 18 swings and misses despite relying upon the pitch less often. Meanwhile, his curve and change have reemerged as true weapons for Shields to go to.
The cutter is going to be a major part of James Shields arsenal, but by using the pitch less, it has become more effective. His usage of the cutter may be worth keeping an eye on during the rest of the season.