A Look At James Shields, Relief Ace

ATLANTA - JUNE 17: Starting pitcher James Shields #33 of the Tampa Bay Rays pitches against the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field on June 17, 2010 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Admittedly, this post serves a selfish purpose more than it does any real informational one; however, how often will we get to analyze James Shields, the Tampa Bay Rays relief ace? Shields has 132 major league starts, and made his first career relief appearance on Saturday; the answer is not often.

With the bullpen stretched to its thinnest point on Saturday night, Rays' Manager Joe Maddon was left with a tough decision. Having already used five of his seven relievers in regulation, Maddon had just two relievers available going into extra innings of a 5-5 ballgame. One of those relievers, Andy Sonnanstine, threw more than 50 pitches the previous evening in 4.2 innings of relief. The other, Lance Cormier, has been the team's least effective reliever this season.

Complicating the matters even further, the pitcher spot was due up in the top of the 11th, if there was one. Facing these odds, Maddon did what any manager in baseball would do; he began warming up his ace starting pitcher. Say what?

Thanks to the wonderful rules of the National League, James Shields was lifted for a pinch-hitter in Thursday's contest after throwing just 72 pitches in six innings. Because the Rays had an off-day on Monday, Shields' scheduled bullpen session on Saturday was moved to Sunday. This allowed the Rays to use their three-time opening day starter in a relief role. In fact, it was Shields who volunteered his services to Jim Hickey knowing he could go at least an inning and skip his session the next day.

Looking at the strategy from Maddon's point of view, he made the move thinking he could get an inning out of Shields, and then use a pinch-hitter in the top of the 11th.  This would allow him to use Cormier for multiple innings if needed. Of course, we didn't know of the results to come, but the thought process made sense - at least to me.

As far as Shields goes, Maddon got exactly what he was looking for. Despite walking Dan Uggla with two outs, Shields used 13 pitches to retire the side in his scoreless relief debut. In Chad Bradford fashion, Shields induced three groundball outs.

Obviously, we won't learn anything meaningful from checking the pitch f/x data, but again, the opportunity study a Shields relief appearance is too good to pass up. Shields kept this attack relatively simple as he worked mainly off his three variations of the fastball: four-seam, two-seam, and cutter. He threw his signature change-up twice, getting a called strike on one. Velocity wise, he was 91-92 MPH which is what we've become accustomed to seeing.

As cool as it was to see Shields in relief, my hope is this is the last time he is needed in that role. Because of the off-day, they may choose to start Matt Garza  tomorrow and have Shields make the start on Thursday. But who knows? What we do know is that for one night in June, Shields was not only the Rays' normal ace, but their relief ace as well.

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