Yesterday, James Shields threw his 11th complete game of the season becoming the first pitcher in the American League to do so since Scott Erickson accomplished the feat in the 1998 season with the Baltimore Orioles. That last start put Shields at a 14-10 mark for the season with a 2.77 ERA - a mark that would be better if Shields did not have the 15th worst run support among all starting pitchers as the Rays' offense supplies him with just 3.6 runs per contest this season. Compare that to 15 game winner Ivan Nova who is 15-4 despite an ERA that is more than a full run higher at 3.89. Nova also happens to be the second most-supported pitcher in baseball as the potent Yankees' offense supplies him with 6.9 runs a contest.
Shields can only control so much of what happens during a game and has to let the offense do what it does while he hopes he prevents at least one less run than the offense backs him up with. What he can control is how efficiently he does his job, and that is something he has done better than just about anyone else in baseball this season.
Ten pitchers this season have already eclipsed the 200 inning mark this season: Shields, Justin Verlander, CC Sabathia, Felix Hernandez, Dan Haren, Jered Weaver, Clayton Kershaw, Cliff Lee, Ervin Santana, and Roy Halladay. All have been workhorses in their own right for the teams while all but Shields and Kershaw have led their team into a serious spot for post-season contention. Santana, Kerhaw, and Lee have been the three most efficient pitchers in terms of pitches average pitches thrown per game started with Shields coming in fourth place.
While Shields is in fourth place as far as average pitches thrown, he is third place overall with 218 innings of work this season trailing only Sabathia by one-third of an inning and Verlander by five innings.
One of the common fallacies used when talking about pitcher's workloads is looking at the amount of innings pitched. On paper, Verlander, Sabathia, and Shields all appear to have similar workloads given that their totals are just five innings apart. In fact, just 20.2 innings separates Verlander and Halladay in terms of workload on the season if looking at innings pitched. Yet, any Rays fan that has stuck with this teams for a few seasons knows that all innings are not created equally and fans got a recent reminder when Jeremy Hellickson and Jeremy Guthriesquared off in the last series.
Hellickson needed just 97 pitches to throw his complete game four-hitter against the Orioles while Jeremy Guthrie threw 112 pitches in five innings. Much has been made of Hellickson's workload this season as he currently sits at 164.1 innings of work, but he has thrown nearly 200 pitches less than the pitcher he replaced, Matt Garza. Garza has thrown 2,721 pitches in 166 innings of work compared to the 2550 pitches Hellickson has thrown; that is nearly two less starts worth of pitches. Jon Lester has thrown two-thirds of an inning more than Hellickson this season and yet has thrown 176 pitches more than Hellickson has in his outings and Lester has yet to complete a start this season while Hellickson has two complete games.
Getting back to Shields, Verlander, and Sabathia; while their workloads appear similar on paper, they are anything but similar. When looking at total pitches, Shields has thrown 3,107 pitches this season while Sabathia has thrown 3,238 and Verlander has thrown a major league-leading 3,486.Using 110 pitches as the average amount of pitches in a start, Shields has thrown the equivalent of 1.2 less games this season than Sabathia and 3.4 games less than Verlander has this season. Felix Hernandez, who has worked 8.2 innnings less than Shields this season, has thrown 130 pitches more than he has. Even teammate David Price, who has worked 20.1 innings less than Shields this season, has thrown 85 more pitches than his older teammate in 2011.
The efficiency James Shields is showing this season in terms of results and workload is entering some extremely rare company. Using the Play Index at Baseball-Reference, we find just eight pitchers that have worked at least 218 innings in a season and have done it with no more than the 3,107 pitches Shields has thrown this season. That search result renders seven other instances of that happening.
Maddux's name should have been the first to pop into your mind when thinking about pitching efficiency as he was the greatest pitcher in recent memory in that regard while Halladay would likely have been the next in line. The big difference between Shields and these seven pitchers is the dominance in which he is getting it done. Striking out batters takes at least three pitches to do, while a sinkerballer like Lowe or Wang can get a batter out with just one pitch. The pitches Halladay throws and the ones Maddux threw had so much natural movement to them that batter's swings often resulted in weakly hit balls into play that easily found a fielder's glove.Meanwhile, Shields has done that and has punched out batters with alarming regularity.
In 2009, Shields struck out 167 batters in 219.2 innings of work. Before this season, his career high was 187 which he set in his disastrous 2010 season in 203.1 innings of work. This season, Shields already has 205 strikeouts which is 32 strikeouts more than the next highest strikeout total of the pitchers mentioned above and that was done by Maddux when he struck out 173 batters in 233 innings of work.
It is essentially a foregone conclusion that Verlander is going to win the AL Cy Young based on his performance and the 21-5 record he has put up while dominating the American League. Sabathia deserves to be right there in the discussion, but having the 13th best run support in baseball has certainly helped him get to 19 wins. Haren, Weaver, and even Justin Masterson deserve attention as well down the ballot. The disappointing point of it all is that Shields may not even crack the top five in the final balloting because of the lack of run support has skewed his won-loss record and even more disappointing is the fact everyone focuses on just the complete game aspect of his line score.
At his current pace, Shields will become just the sixth starting pitcher since 2000 to pitch at least 215 innings, with a strikeout rate of at least 8.5, a walk rate of less than 2.5, and do so in under 3400 pitches thrown. Those other pitchers: Sabathia, Javier Vazquez, Haren, and Johan Santana and Pedro Martinez who did so twice. None of those pitchers finished worse than fifth in the Cy Young balloting the season in which they dominated their respective league in that fashion.