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In Appreciation of James Shields


Before I went into work Thursday morning, I was looking into the best change ups on the Rays roster (article hopefully forthcoming) and thinking heavily on James Shields.

As the story goes,  the Rays success with the change up is owed large in part to what Big Game James was able to share with the other guys on the roster. Now it's become the signature pitch of the Rays.

Jonah Keri ran a ten minute interview with James Shields, and they discussed this very topic.

Keri: You've developed a reputation over the years as someone who's willing to teach teammates some tricks if they ask. In Tampa Bay, the word was that you'd talk to some teammates about how you throw your changeup. Holding runners on, picking guys off ... are those transferable skills too? Or do you need certain talents to do it, like quick feet?

Shields: I'm a big believer that players learn from players, that pitchers learn from other pitchers. It goes both ways. I pick their brains, and vice versa. I'm not just the guy you can get information from. When I was in Tampa, the whole starting staff, every day we talked about scenarios, pitches thrown, everything. I definitely want to learn from other pitchers too. I don't necessarily think of myself as someone to go to. A lot of it is I just like talking about baseball with other people.

Juego G has had an incredible impact on the Rays franchise, through his attitude and his change up. But that's not all he taught Rays pitchers.


Alex Cobb has had somewhat of a renaissance on the mound, and it started mid-season last year when he added a new grip to his curveball, more of a spiked-fastball grip that he learned from Shields. "It keeps a tighter spin," Cobb told High Heat Stats's David Hruska, "More of a four-seam rotation so it's harder to pick up."

To illustrate the effectiveness of the added spin, let's take a broader perspective.

When considering the best curveballs in baseball, Justin Verlander comes to mind, particularly his 2011 Cy Young campaign. Using the data available from MLBAM at Texas Leaguers, Verlander consistently spun his curve at a rate of 1,760 revolutions per minute in 2011. In that same season, Shields was spinning his at 1,825 RPM. Both pitchers were allowing only ~13% of curveballs thrown to be put into play, and Shields was earning a 13.4% whiff-rate, compared to Verlander's 8.7%. When it's on, it's a filthy pitch.

Alex Cobb entered 2012 with even more spin, able to work a rate of 2,115 RPM on his curve. That's more than what Shields had on his fastball. The problem was that Cobb had no control over the pitch, and it fell out of the strikezone nearly 50% of the time, limiting Cobb's use of the pitch. By percentages, Cobb was using the curve only 13% of the time, and he was generating only 3% whiffs.

After picking up Shields's grip during July and the All-Star break in 2012, Cobb was able to maintain his deadly spin, keep it in the zone over 66% of the time, and the pitch graduated to his second most used offering, earning nearly 10% whiff-rates. This season it's been effective when mixed well, and eliciting some strong reactions (cue: Miguel Cabrera). Jumping forward a year, Cobb is getting whiffs almost 22% on the curve since his return from the disabled list.

James Shields is also a master of the pick off, which his interview with Keri was based upon. He passed tips and practices along to the Rays right-handers, and made improvements to their game.

In Wade Davis's rookie season, players stole 13 bases while he was on the mound. Over the next two seasons, only six would be successful. Hellickson has also took after Shields, but his movement has a bit more of a swing step to it, which slows his turn. Still, his rookie season saw runners swipe 10 bags. The following seasons there were only seven (with three caught), and then five this year (with four caught).

That's just another reason to miss James. This season the Rays have allowed 89 base runners to steal, tied for the fourth most in baseball. While Shields was with the club, the team averaged less than 100 swiped bags per season, and regularly in the bottom third for steals allowed. The Rays are currently on pace to exceed their norm by more than ten percent.

James is not just the resident pick-off expert. He is the team record holder for the most complete games pitched, totaling 19, with eight of those shutouts. The next highest in the record books is Matt Garza, with six CG's and three shutouts. He doesn't have a Cy Young, and he never threw a no-hitter, but based on service time, Shields has been the best pitcher the Rays have ever had.

Watching James Shields pitch was a joy, and his legacy lives on in the Rays rotation.


After looking into change ups all Thursday morning, and reflecting on the influence of James had, I was already having a sad day, but it was later, while populating a spreadsheet, that Shields came up again.

I'd been listening through the best songs of the last 14 years, thanks to another Grantland feature involving a Top-64 bracket about something in pop-culture. This time, it's the best songs of the current millennium, and it was about 11:15 AM that Keri sent out the link to his article, right when I was listening to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs track "Maps".

If you haven't read the Keri interview (or even if you have), click the link and play the song below, and try not to turn into a blubbering mess as they coincide.

Karen O's expression as the video winds down? That was me sitting at my computer.

The they in "They don't love you like I love you" was me, talking to every Royals fan.

It wrecked me, not in a "Stan" obsessive kind of way, just in a "Dammit, I miss James Shields" kind of way.

And I want him back.


I would be remiss to mention another (and possibly the biggest) aspect to James's game: his clubhouse presence. Howard Megdal dove into the Rays clubhouse and had nothing but great words to say about the environment that Joe Maddon has cultivated. An environment that may never have been possible without the enigmatic personality of James Shields.

That's an opinion, it's hard to quantify, but it comes from years of watching a guy pitch, listening to interviews and discussions, reading quotes, and a growing fondness. When Shields was acquired by the Royals, the narrative wasn't just how awesome a pitcher he would be (an immediate staff ace), but that he'd bring a Rays-like atmosphere with him.

All of the tangibles and the intangibles made Shields a huge value-add for Kansas City. That trade has been maligned by Rays and Royals fans, and the cause for many jokes from bloggers and twitter users everywhere. Jonah Keri is still breaking it down on podcasts, and I suppose it's rightfully so. Dayton Moore traded away his best prospect, two young arms with unknown ceilings, and a class-A infielder; but it's not like this trade wasn't worth while for both sides.

Yes, Moore is gambling the future success of a prospect for two years of making playoff runs, but for a franchise that hasn't tasted the post season since 1985, the chance is worth it.

When I hear the jokes, I might smile for a moment, but then it stings. The Rays gave up much in James Shields and Wade Davis, as we've seen whenever base runners swipe bags, or pitchers (like Price, Cobb, and currently Moore) get injured, and the next line of defense is a minor league arm. Wade Davis had been decent in his starts, with the third highest WAR on the KC staff, working the highest strikeout numbers he's had as a starter, but James Shields has been excellent.

Shields is on track for another 3.5+ WAR season, owns a 3.22 ERA, 3.77 FIP, and an 80% LOB-rate. He's walked a few more than usual, but his K-rate is in line with his career average, and every aspect of his game would keep pace with the best of the Rays starters. And he gets to do it again for the Royals next year.

Made off
Don't stray
My kind's your kind
I'll stay the same

James Shields will be a free agent in 2015, his age 33 season. A 3-4 WAR player will command a salary on the market, and I have little reason to believe we will ever see Shields in a Tampa Bay jersey again.

But deep down in my heart, I hold out hope that James Shields will return.

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All in-article images courtesy of Leon Halip/Getty Images.