I know you’re probably sick of hearing more speculation on the trials and tribulations of Royals’ “ace” James Shields. The blogosphere has been flooded with the pouring of virtual ink regarding him and his decline. The workhorse righthander was acquired for Wil Myers, Jake Odorizzi and two other prospects. He was expected to slot right into the number one role in Kansas City and lead the playoff charge for a team that hasn’t been there since 1985, the longest active drought in the majors.
2013 saw Shields post one of his best seasons ever, racking up 4.5 fWAR which tied his personal best, and pitched 222.8 innings, leading the staff. But this season with the young team more mature and ready for a playoff run, Shields has seemingly forgotten how to pitch. Every stat for him completely nosedived. This is the worst he’s been since he rejuvenation in 2011 where he finished third in Cy Young voting and 16th in the MVP race.
The most noticeable statistical backslide has been in his strikeouts. He’s never had an elite strikeout arm, maxing out at a 23.6% K rate in 2012, but he’s always been above average with a career rate of 20.5%. Yet this season he’s seen that drop to a below average 18.3% this season.
Largely at fault for his strikeout drop has been the lack of an effective changeup. What’s striking about that is that’s Shields’ bread and butter pitch, the pitch he’s used to get almost half of his career strikeouts, with 47.9% of them coming from the change. It was worth 84.1 runs above average according to Pitch Type Values from FanGraphs since the start of his career until 2013, but this year it’s returned a negative value; 7.6 runs below the average changeup.
Career swinging strike rate on changeup of 20.4%? Down to 16.4% this year. Career wRC+ against it at 54? Up to 118.
The reason for the hammering going on with the pitch is a lack of movement. Instead of diving down against hitters, it’s steadily losing the late break that made it so lethal earlier in his career.
Or maybe it’s all just an intricate marketing scheme by Nike?
James Shields has understood that his change has been a stinker, and he’s reacted accordingly. He’s using is less, down to 20.1% from 24.8% in 2013 and his career mark of 25.2%.
He knows that he’s not been on point as he used to. As Shields told Andy McCullough of the Kansas City Star:
“I’m not doing my job right now,” Shields said. “I know that. So that’s frustrating.
“I really didn’t make too many mistakes today,” Shields said. “They just hit the ball where they needed to hit it.”
Even though he hasn’t been making mistakes (at least, according to him) it doesn’t matter; the changeup just isn’t as good, and when that happens he becomes easy to attack. James Shields without his changeup is like Monday without coffee, they just go together. The game plan now becomes simple with him. You just attack his fastballs early in the count (career 152 wRC+ against) and lay off his curve.
Even Ned Yost has been critical of Shields, noting his performance issues are due to not executing his pitches well. From the same story as cited above:
“He’s just not sharp right now,” manager Ned Yost said. “He’s going through a streak, a pretty extended streak, four starts or so, where he hasn’t been exceptionally sharp.”
Sure, Yost tries to remain diplomatic but it’s hard when your ace is pitching worse than some minor league arms.
Pitcher often just seem to lose it, a classic case called the yips. But is that what’s really happened here? Or is there something else driving his cold streak?
Compare these two gifs, the first one a start from March of this year, when he was actually good. He posted a 3.26 FIP and 3.11 xFIP over the first month+ of the year. The second gif is from his most recent start, right in the middle of his slump. If you’re having trouble noticing the mechanical differences, look hard at his release point.
See the difference? If not, or you’re just not a fan of gifs, here’s the release point data in graphical form:
If you don’t see the change now, there’s no hope for you.
He’s dropping his arm angle as the season has worn on. Losing release point consistency is a huge red flag for pitchers, a sign of overthrowing that can lead to serious injury. His head is also way off-balanced, which is letting him fall off the mound more so than he has earlier in his career.
Not only is release point inconsistency a major issue problem in regards to injury, but so is late game consistency. Shields’ release point falls even lower in the later innings, bringing more concern to him. To add to it all, he ranks 27th in Baseball Prospectus’ Pitcher Abuse Points (PAP) rankings. His high PAP number gives reason to believe he’s either injured already, or on the verge.
James Shields is a complete mess right now. His best pitch has been horrid, and his mechanics are all out of whack. He’s quite possibly hurt, to add to the laundry list of problems he’s facing. The Royals needed an ace when they traded for Shields, and they got one up until the calendar flipped to May. Shields’ tough season isn’t over yet, and he’g got a huge hill to climb before he can even think of returning to his old, dominant self.