Inside James Shields’ Big Game | The Process Report

Inside James Shields’ Big Game

For James Shields, going the distance became a common occurrence in 2011. This season, however, Shields has endured some hiccups along the way. Pitch selection has become a key talking point, and—to the surprise of no one—has come into focus after Shields’ superb outing on Tuesday night.

Shields returned to the basics on Tuesday night. He threw 51 fastballs and 30 changeups out of his 98 pitches. Some will look at that ratio and the results and label this the blueprint as to how Shields should pitch moving forward. But every lineup is built differently and so should every game plan. Just because Shields shut down the Athletics with that ratio of fastballs and changeups does not mean he can take the same approach against the Blue Jays and have similar successes. That said, there was more to just pitch selection in James Shields’ process versus the A’s.

Shields throws four pitches with regularity: fastball (four-seam and two-seam), changeup, curveball, and a cutter that can look like a hard slider. Historically, the fastball has been least effective of all his pitches. At the same time, it is largely his most important. Without great velocity or great movement, a long-term, fastball-heavy diet would probably not work well for him. Well-located fastballs, on the other hand, are essential to maximize the effect of his plus, plus changeup.

Against the Athletics, Shields threw an unusually high amount of heaters. A 52 percent usage rate would seem low for David Price or Matt Moore, but for Shields ( who entered the game with a fastball usage rate of around 30 percent this season), throwing a majority fastballs has become uncommon. After the game, Shields noted that the gameplan put forth Jim Hickey called for an increased amount of fastballs. This plan might not work against an offense like Detroit or Texas, but against the passive aggressive Oakland crew it was the right call.

Looking only at strikeouts, the A’s would seem to be one of the more-aggressive teams in the AL. Their 23 percent strikeout rate is the highest among AL teams, yet, they have been stingy with their swings and take their fair share of walks. While striking out at a rate higher than any other AL club, they also have the third-highest walk rate. Their percentage of swings is among the bottom-five in the major leagues, and they swing at fewer first pitches than the league-average team.

With that data in hand, Shields attacked with first-pitch fastballs. Of the 29 battles he had last night, 19 began with a fastball. This a radical shift from the first-pitch cutters and curveballs we have seen this season. He was credited with 12 first-pitch strikes on the fastball—including six called strikes. He also induced four first-pitch fastball outs; all four on fastballs located low and away to left-handed batters which brings us to location.

The fastball first strategy does not work well when the fastball is located over the middle of the plate. In addition to a good plan, Shields had tremendous fastball command. He peppered the low-and-away quadrant of the strike zone against lefties while working the few right-handers he saw middle-in, thus setting up his changeup. Throwing 30 changeups for every 100 pitches is the norm for Shields, meaning his 30 on Tuesday night was about right. Because of the fastballs being thrown for strikes early in the count, the A’s were forced into something Shields calls “swing mode,” making his changeup more potent.

Masked with the same arm-action, thrown in a similar location as the fastball, but coming in seven-to-nine mph slower, Shields’ changeup led to 14 empty swings, including six on two-strike counts. With the fastball/changeup combination working like a fresh plate of mayo and eggs, Shields sprinkled in a few breaking balls and cutters for diversity. He threw nine curveballs with little success; however, his thought process about its usage—seven first-pitch curveballs—was sound. The cutter, which has been beat up in both game action and conversation, was seldom used, but had a noticeable impact.

Although he threw just eight cutters on the evening, Shields completed five of his 11 strikeouts with the pitch. Three times the cutter was called a strike, and batters whiffed on the pitch two other times. Despite the bad reputation, the cutter can be a secondary weapon for Shields as long as his primary stuff is working accordingly.

More fastballs, fewer cutters, better results. To some this will be enough to suggest a strict blueprint for Shields going forward. But in reality, for a pitcher like Shields, who relies on fastball command and secondary pitches for outs, there can never be one blueprint. This approach worked well against the Athletics, and may work well against similar teams, but Shields’ future processes must be evolutionary, adapting to the strengths and weaknesses of his opponent.

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