How James Shields Can Keep the Giants’ Bats at Bay

Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Madison Bumgarner has gotten quite a bit of coverage in the postseason, and rightfully so. He’s been utterly dominant in the playoffs, and was also extremely good in the regular season. As I wrote this weekend, the Royals are going to have their hands full with the Giants’ ace. Of course, Bumgarner won’t be the only guy making a start tomorrow night, in Game 1 of the World Series.

James Shields will be making his 4th start of the playoffs, and for the most part, he hasn’t looked terribly sharp. He did pitch well enough against the Angels to throw 6 innings of 2-run ball, but his starts against the A’s and Orioles both left quite a bit to be desired. The Royals will need their ace to deliver a better performance if they hope to best Bumgarner tomorrow night. Despite Shields’ struggles in the postseason, he does have a couple of things working in his favor.

1. Using Pitchf/x pitch values, the Giants were baseball’s worst offense against cutters. They were the 2nd-worst offense against changeups.

2. Shields throws a lot of cutters and a lot of changeups.

During the regular season, the Giants’ run values against cutters and changeups were 21.4 runs below average and 22.2 runs below average, and that lack of production was prevalent basically up and down the lineup. Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval had success against cutters, but Hunter Pence and Gregor Blanco had some problems with them. Blanco also struggled with changeups, as did Brandon Crawford and Sandoval, all of whom bat from the left side against righties.

Shields throws his cutter and changeup to hitters on both sides of the plate, but one might expect him to lean more on the cutter against a righty, and the changeup against a lefty, simply based upon the movement of each pitch. Obviously he won’t want to be too predictable, but I’m guessing Pence gets a steady diet of cutters, while the lefties see plenty of changeups in their plate appearances.

In the playoffs, Shields has already been throwing more cutters, choosing that pitch 30% of the time, compared to the regular season, when he threw it about 24% of the time. He also seems to be getting slightly more movement, while adding some velocity as well. Here’s his average cutter velocity in the last few months:

August – 87.8 MPH
September – 88.2 MPH
October – 88.9 MPH

If we narrow it down to just his playoff starts, Shields’ cutter has averaged 89.3 MPH, whereas it sat at 87.6 MPH in the regular season. A 90 MPH pitch isn’t the toughest pitch to hit, but when it has some slider-like movement, it can be more difficult to square up. At least in theory. Shields hasn’t been spotting that pitch as well in the playoffs, leaving too many of them over the plate, instead of running off the outside edge to right-handed batters. That has resulted in opponents hitting .333 off the cutter in the postseason.

Shields will need to locate his cutter effectively to make sure he can take advantage of one of the Giants’ weaknesses. He’ll need to do the same with his changeup, of course, but that’s a pitch with which Shields has had a ton of success throughout his career. It’s gotten roughed up a bit in the playoffs, but he held opponents to a .643 OPS with it in the regular season, and considering how poorly the Giants hit against changeups, this could be a good matchup for Shields.

The first 2 hitters in the Giants’ lineup are left-handed, and have hit .140 and .233 against changeups this year, with slugging percentages of .163 and .279, respectively. It’s going to be incredibly important for Shields to keep those 2 off base, since Posey is such a dangerous hitter against pretty much any pitch. If he can have success against Blanco and Joe Panik, that could go a long way in limiting the impact Posey can have with his bat.

The Giants’ lineup is filled with good hitters, so it’s going to be a challenge for Shields tomorrow night. Despite their offensive prowess, though, the few weaknesses they do have match up well with Shields’ strengths. He showed the ability to shut down the Giants’ lineup once before, and if he relies on his cutter and changeup tomorrow night, Shields may be able to do it again.

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