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James Shields, come home (as an Opener!)

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It’s time for a Rays legend to reinvent himself in the sunset of his career — so why not here?

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Look we have a day game and a dinosaur out on the field right now, so I’ll keep this brief. Ken Rosenthal is out here stumping for James Shields, and he’s dead-on to say this veteran should have a job right now as likely one of the best 150 starters in baseball.

The best-record-in-baseball Rays recently sent away Wilmer Font to the Mets and saw Hunter Wood sidelined with a shoulder problem. They could use another competitive couple-innings pitcher to slot in to the mix.

Much of the value of being James Shields is wrapped up in the ability to soak up 200 innings as a workhorse, but the results aren’t there anymore late in games for the 37-year old veteran, as we saw in 2018:

  • First time through the order: 3.52 ERA, .230 AVG
  • Second time through the order: 3.91 ERA, .240 AVG
  • Third time through the order: 5.52 ERA, .248 AVG

This is a bit simplistic, but stay with me, because the results are clearly there. Shields was at his best on the peripherals the second time through the order (18.5% strikeouts, 4.16 FIP), as his first time through saw the workhorse nibbling too much, walking at least one hitter the first time through, and giving up two hits. on average.

Here are those TTO stats in full:

Times Through the Order

James Shields 2018 1st Through Order 2nd Through Order 3rd Through Order
James Shields 2018 1st Through Order 2nd Through Order 3rd Through Order
ERA 3.52 3.91 5.52
FIP 5.51 4.16 5.46
xFIP 5.29 4.85 5.12
AVG 0.23 0.24 0.248
wOBA 0.323 0.304 0.33
K% 17.9 18.5 15.9
BB% 10.8 8.1 7.5
LOB% 81.6 68.5 63.7
2018 FanGraphs

This, to me, looks like a pitcher ripe for reinvention.

Shields has a deep pitching arsenal, but keeping outings to the first time through the order may help Shields’s approach with hitters, letting him flash whatever’s working without having to worry about the next time through, and in shorter outings letting the fastball rip at a higher velocity.

Shields has sat around 90 mph the past couple seasons, but has shown velocities in the mid-90’s where he can likely sit in shorter outings. Setting the velocity results for min/max shows Shields reaching up into the mid-90’s with his stuff (see the top line):

A Shields fastball that averages 93 mph creates some even greater separation for his off-speed and breaking stuff that already has solid whiff rates of 30%. Scaling back the pitch mix to whatever fastball works best and pairing it with the change or curve could be the answer for the Rays legend to revitalize his career and get those rates even higher.

Add in the benefits of pitching in Tropicana Field again, with the Rays able to pick their spots on which days he enters the game, and this could really work, not much unlike how it’s worked for Ian Kennedy, who has improved his results dramatically from 2018 to 2019 while transitioning into a multi-inning relief role:

Kennedy & Shields

Pitcher Ian Kennedy 2018 Ian Kennedy 2019 James Shields 2018
Pitcher Ian Kennedy 2018 Ian Kennedy 2019 James Shields 2018
IP 119.2 16.1 204.2
G 22 14 34
ERA 4.66 2.76 4.53
FIP 4.61 1.61 5.09
K% 20.3 31.4 17.7
BB% 7.7 2.9 9.0
LOB% 72.5 81.6 70.6
2018 vs 2019 FanGraphs

Kennedy has not pitched more than two-innings this season, and likewise, I think Shields could harness his stuff more effectively by limiting his batters and focusing his approach. And while this would typically spell relief, Shields could still start games, in this approach as an Opener.

Of course, this is all theoretical. I cannot say with certainty that Shields will start breaking 95 mph in shorter outings, nor that his stuff will definitely play out. Realistically, he’d have to accept a minor league assignment to get ready and would need to be willing to reinvent himself when there are plenty of other teams who could probably use his inning-eating services.

But those teams — the Royals, the Rangers, the Tigers — are not offering the same kind of playoff-minded opportunity, and with Brent Honeywell receiving another setback in his return from Tommy John surgery, why not roll the dice if you’re the Rays and let Shields fill the projected role?

Am I biased here? Yes, most definitely, but I really think this could work!