James (Shields) and the Giant Risk


Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

According to a report from Peter Gammons, James Shields has informed the Royals that he is thinking about a deal in the Zack Greinke range. Greinke signed with the Dodgers before the 2013 season for 6 years and $147 million.

On a related note, I’m thinking about a mansion on the beach and a never-ending supply of pizza.

I don’t blame Shields for aiming high. Clayton Kershaw just signed a $215 million deal that will pay him over $30 million per season, and Shields is going to be one of the more sought-after starters on the market in November. He’s going to get paid, and even though I find it incredibly unlikely his demands are met, some team will give him a very lucrative deal. However, Shields will be almost 33 when this season is over, and he’ll have over 1800 innings on his arm. It’s hard to imagine any team giving him a Greinke-esque contract, especially a small market team like the Royals.

And if we’re being honest, that’s probably for the best.

I really like Shields as a pitcher. He had a great season last year, and as much as I loathe the hyperbole surrounding player intangibles, it’s nearly impossible to ignore the impact Shields had on the young Royals clubhouse in 2013. Shields’ on-field performance was pretty impactful, too. His 4.5 fWAR and 77 ERA- each ranked 13th best among all qualified MLB starters. He threw more innings than anyone not named Kershaw or Adam Wainwright. Shields was incredibly valuable to the Royals last season, and I do think he’s going to have another very good season in 2014, but there are some numbers that could be concerning, and may give the Royals pause about signing their top starter to a long term deal, beyond just the financial side of things.

I’ve mentioned before that Shields’ strikeout rate dropped quite a bit in 2013. His 20.7 K% was his lowest since the 2009 season. There are several causes of this. First, Shields threw fewer first pitch strikes than he had in any season in his career (57.6%). Getting behind hitters is not usually a good idea, and that also contributed to Shields’ highest walk rate of his career (7.2%). Shields’ overall zone percentage was below average by a couple of percentage points, as well, and fewer balls in the strike zone will normally lead to hitters’ counts, which makes strikeouts more difficult. Throwing pitches out of the zone can be ok, as long as the pitcher is generating swings and misses on those pitches. But yet again, Shields set another career worst, this time in O-Swing%, which is the percentage of pitches out of the strike zone at which batters swung. Batters swing at fewer pitches out of the zone when they’re ahead in the count, since they can take borderline pitches without having to worry about being rung up. But when batters did swing, they made more contact. Shields’ swinging strike percentage was his lowest since his awful 2010 season, in which he had a 5.18 ERA.

At first glance, it appears that Shields had an over-reliance on his fourseam fastball in 2013. In his 2012 season, he threw that pitch less than 19% of the time, but last year showed him using it nearly 29% of the time. However, it appears his 2012 season was an outlier, since his fastball usage rate was above 30% in every other season of his career. There are still some concerns with that pitch, though. While the velocity was fine, Shields threw his fastball in the zone just over 58% of the time, which is a couple of percentage points below his career average. Also, opposing batters had a line drive rate of 25.7% on the pitch, but only a .276 BABIP. The Royals defense is arguably the best in the league, but that average on balls in play is still lower than it probably should have been. Overall, Shields allowed a line drive rate of 23.2%, which was the highest of his career except for his 2006 rookie year. His BABIP allowed, though, was .298, which was right in line with his career average. I think it’s safe to say Shields was the beneficiary of a bit of good luck with batted balls.

Another area of potential regression is in the home run department. Kauffman Stadium suppresses home runs, but Shields’ HR/FB rate was still well below his career average, particularly on his fastball. His career HR/FB rate on his fastball is 12.5%, but that number was just 7.4% in 2013. Shields also allowed more home runs at home than he did away from Kansas City – and in fewer innings – so it’s not unreasonable to think he could give up a few more dingers moving forward.

Shields’ strand rate suggests yet another possible area of regression. Last year, he had a LOB% of 79.5, which is significantly higher than both his career average, and the league average. The defense behind him can help, but it still appears that Shields could see some tougher luck next year.

One last concerning part of Shields’ game actually relates to the best part of his game. Shields has an excellent changeup, but there is a slightly worrisome trend to notice. Below are Shields’ whiff rates on his changeup in the past 4 seasons.

2010: 22.83%

2011: 22.09%

2012: 21.55%

2013: 20.47%

That troubling trend repeats itself in the Whiff per Swing rate, meaning it’s not just the result of batters laying off his changeup. The pitch is still an effective one, but much less so than it has been in previous seasons. If that trend continues, Shields may not be able to rely on his bread and butter pitch as often, which could result in some poor results.

I realize it probably sounds like I’m pessimistic about Shields, but I’m really not. I still think Shields will have another very solid season. He’ll probably throw over 200 innings and be worth around 4 wins. At the same time, there are some possible red flags that should be noted in regards to his 2013 season, and I wouldn’t be completely shocked if Shields slides back this season. Even if he doesn’t regress much, it’s probably not going to be wise for the Royals to attempt to extend him for anything beyond 3 years, which is almost certainly an unrealistic scenario based on the upcoming free agent market and Shields’ comments. Shields’ age, along with his peripheral statistics, present some significant risks in locking him up to the kind of contract he’s seeking, so the Royals would be best-served to let him play out the 2014 season, allow him to decline the qualifying offer, and collect a draft pick when some other team hands him an enormous paycheck next winter.