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James Shields Flops For Second Time in Three Starts; Rays Lose to Marlins 14-9

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These are the sort of games it's best not to dwell on. The Rays made this one semi-interesting by mounting a comeback late in the game, but this game was over by the end of the top of the fourth. James Shields was disgustingly bad last night, giving up 10 earned runs in only 3.1 innings. When your starter puts up a performance like that, I don't care how good your offense is - it's darn tough to come back and win.

So instead of focusing on the game, I'm going to look at the biggest question from last night - James Shields. Last night made his second bad outing in the last three starts - the other being his 7 ER performance against the White Sox - and he wasn't exactly dominant in the one start between those games either (7 innings, 6 runs, 3 earned). Should we be concerned about Shields, or is this merely a rough patch that he'll weather through? What's going on? 

To find another start where James Shields didn't last through five full innings, I have to go all the way back to 2008.* Shields had two games that season where he got shelled early and often; both of them were against Boston, oddly enough, and he lasted only one inning in one of them and three innings in another. Shields's final line for that season ended up normal enough - 3.56 ERA, 3.82 Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) - so it's not like those games were a sign that Shields had big problems to worry about.

*Before I move on, that's pretty damn impressive, isn't it? Before tonight, Shields had gone 64 starts in a row (not including four post-season games) without leaving before completing five full innings. Turns out that's not anywhere close to a record (the longest streak is 147 starts in a row), but it does place Shields up near names like Roy Halladay (67 games, 2007-2009) and Brandon Webb (68 games, 2004-2006) at 25th all-time.

Of course, this patch of bad weather seems a bit more serious. Shields not only got pulled from a game early, but he's also been hit hard, giving up a combined 30 hits in his last three starts. That's the worst three-game stretch of Shields's career. Also (and take this with a grain of salt), I thought Shields looked good on the mound through the first couple innings last night. He seemed to have a killer change-up going, generating 5 swinging strikes on 26 change-ups and making the Marlins look foolish. If Shields could have good stuff and still get knocked around...well, that sounds like trouble.

So what's going wrong with him? Well, I don't have a great answer to that question. Looking at the numbers, Shields has seemingly gotten unlucky in his last few starts, stranding only 55.6% of baserunners (72% is league average) and having an extremely high batting average on balls in play (.393). Everything that's being hit in play is falling for a hit, and every runner that reaches base is coming around to score. Or at least, that's what it feels like.

I don't think these results are merely a product of poor luck, though. During these past few starts, Shields's fastball has been hit hard and the same was true tonight. Of the nine hits given up by Shields, seven of them were off of his fastball (or what Gameday classified as his fastball, at least). And specifically, it seemed like every time Shields threw a first pitch fastball, it was getting rocked and rocked hard. Gaby Sanchez's home run? First pitch fastball. Mike Stanton's triple? First pitch fastball. Okay, maybe that's all there was (good job memory...), but there's still something off with Shields's fastball.

Anyone want to take a stab at a hypothesis? Here are the possibilities:

  1. Difference in movement - less or more than usual?
  2. Difference in velocity - Shields supposedly increased his fastball velocity earlier this season due to some mechanical fixes; could those mechanics be off?
  3. Pitch Selection - Shields has gotten too predictable with when he throws his fastball.
  4. Random Friggin' Variation - these things just happen sometimes. C'est la vie.
  5. It's not his fastball at all, dumba**. ______ is why he's off.
I'm not seeing much to suggest it's either one or two, but then again, I'm just taking a cursory glance at the numbers right now. What do you think? Show me what you've got.