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Appreciating James Shields

Drafted late, overlooked in All-Star and award voting, Shields was the perfect Rays ace

Tampa Bay Devil Rays’ pitcher James Shields delivers home in Photo by Ron Antonelli/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Ten years ago today, the Rays beat the Mariners 4-3 in extra innings. James Shields was the Tampa Bay starting pitcher. He pitched into the eighth inning, allowing three runs on four hits. He walked two and struck out ten.

You might wonder why I’m taking note of this game. It wasn’t Shields at his best (or at his worst). It was just a typical James Shields appearance.

But that is my point. A typical James Shields appearance during his prime years with the Rays was exactly this: a pitcher going deep into the game and giving his team a decent shot at winning. This is the James Shields Rays fans know.

World Series: Philadelphia Phillies v Tampa Bay Rays, Game 2 Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

But mention Shields’ name outside of Tampa Bay and you are likely to get guffaws, mostly for reasons beyond his control. He continued to perform very well in Kansas City, where he helped the Royals win a pennant. He was then signed to a generous free agent contract by the Padres, where he is best remembered for giving up a home run to Bartolo Colon. The Padres then sent him to the White Sox for a teenager named Fernando Tatis.

Shields, by then 34 years old, pitched three seasons in Chicago; that first season, in 2016, was the worst of his career and it colored his reputation across the league. The emergence of Tatis as a superstar just a few years later only further contributed to the sense that this James Shields guy was a punchline and not a pitcher with a praiseworthy career.

So today, on the anniversary of an unremarkable James Shields start, let’s take a moment to admire him.

First, Shields was a workhorse. His career spanned thirteen major league seasons, he pitched over 200 innings in ten of those seasons, averaging 219 innings a season. He pitched twenty-four complete games, an astounding eleven of those coming in his career year, 2011. Yes, it was a different era and perhaps had he pitched ten years later some quick-hook manager would have dragged him off the field before he could hit those milestones, but even back in 2011 most pitchers, even the good ones, were not going nine innings.

Shields could pitch deep into games in part because he was incredibly consistent. He was the same against righties and lefties. He was pretty much the same first and third time through the order (wOBA of .320 vs wOBA of .331). Unlike pitchers with clear splits, there was no obvious moment to replace him with a reliever. If he was hurt, if he was tired, we never knew about it. He exceeded thirty starts in all but two of his major league seasons.

Secondly, Shields threw a lot of high-quality innings. His career 4.01 ERA may not scream “ace”, but that includes seven seasons of ERAs between 2.8 and 3.9. And in his worst Rays year (2010), when his ERA ballooned over 5.0, his FIP was 4.24 and xFIP 3.55, which suggests some bad luck. Although he was not a traditional power pitcher — his changeup was his best pitch — he averaged 7.7 strikeouts per nine innings over his career, and had several seasons with over two hundred strikeouts.

An added bonus, Shields had an elite pickoff move, which helped control the running game. A right-handed pitcher should not be able to pick off this many batters. It was as though his peripheral vision extended 360 degrees.

Finally, James Shields had grit. I know, “grit” is a word with baggage, too often racially coded and meant to praise the old school guys in contrast to the bat-flippers of today. But I’d like to reclaim the word grit to describe a guy best known for the motto “if you don’t like it [the boos, the early hook] pitch better.” He was a mentor to younger pitchers, the sort of teammate who would have your back.

(060508 Boston, MA) Red Sox vs. Tampa Bay. Coc Crisp avoids a punch thrown by James Shields in the second inning. Thursday, June 05, 2008. Staff photo by John Wilcox. Photo by John Wilcox/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images

Shields’ lengthy major league career was far from a given. He was a promising high school player but not drafted by the Devil Rays until the 16th round. Early in his minor league career he had a devastating shoulder injury, and missed a year plus of baseball. Heck, even in 2005 the Rays left him in extended spring training because placing him in one of their minor league teams was such a low priority (and to think he made his debut the following season!) A late draft pick undergoing shoulder surgery is not a guy you figure to see in the majors a few years later, but he worked his way back, with less zip on his fastball but a better change up. Few pitchers manage a largely healthy and successful decades plus of major league ball. That career earned 30.4 WAR, 19.7 WAR while pitching for the Rays.

During the COVID-clouded 2020 World Series, James Shields was invited to throw a virtual first pitch for the Rays (I can’t find the video, unfortunately), and darned if he didn’t look like he was ready to throw a few more innings!

He only attended one All-Star game, never got higher than third place in Cy Young award voting, but James Shields had an admirable career, and was a major factor in turning the last place Devil Rays into the pennant-winning Rays.