OpinionJuly 12, 2007

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Steal Low: James Shields

By Matthew St-Germain

Nothing seems to obfuscate the feckless fantasy owner more than a pitcher giving up ‘too many runs’. Rather than examine the metrics of a pitcher’s appearance as a gauge of overall valuation, all too often simple and sometimes misleading statistics are used to justify stultifying managerial decisions. ‘On the surface, my pitcher gave up five runs and took the loss, thus, it was a terrible result. I better look to move him before he implodes and loses all value.’ But what about the seven innings pitched, six hits, nine strikeouts, and one walk that he produced in the process? While it’s understandable that negative movement in a single category (and in real life, the most important) can blind oneself to the auspicious periphery, the proficient fantasy owner must not acquiesce. In fact, he or she should be on the hunt for these very owners, skillfully looking to vivisect a currently-unlucky pitcher flashing a elite skill set from their ‘faltering’ rosters. Well my dawgies, set your snifters on the managers currently holding The King… James Shields.

Now, we might as well start off with all the downer stuff. He was likely not drafted in your league or was a final round flyer. He wasn’t a major prospect in the minors (drafted in the 16th round), and has had a propensity to give up too many hits and home runs. He pitches in the AL East for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, meaning he faces the Yankees, Red Sox, and Blue Jays, potent line-ups on a regular basis, with a developing and still quite young cast in the field behind him. BJ Upton, Brendan Harris, and Ty Wiggington are not winning gold gloves anytime soon, and who’s their starting center fielder again? While Shields has been steady for most of the season (a huge understatement), since June 15 his record is 1-4 and his ERA is a whopping 6.19. He has also probably ruined most of your personal relationships. That about cover it? Good, because all of it really means squat compared to the growth he has shown, and the underlying elite three-skill value he’s showing in these last five starts that everyone is in dire straits over.

Let’s take a look at his raw performance values over the course of his professional career.


We have three values above to work with that are much better indicators of a pitchers performance than ERA. There are more metrics we could use like ground ball rates and such, but let’s just focus on these three for the time being. They are command (cmd), control (ctl), and dominance (dom). Control is the ability to get the ball over the plate ((BBx9)/IP) and the best pitchers have a ctl rate of 3.0 or less with the elite 2.0 or less. Dominance is the ability to dominate hitters, miss bats, and keep balls out of play ((Kx9)/IP), and the best dominant pitchers have a dom rate of 6.0 or higher, with elite levels starting around 8.5-9.0. Command is the ability to control the plate and put your pitches where you want them (K/BB), and pitchers who maintain a cmd rate of 2.5 or higher have a high probability of success, with the elite levels at 3.0+ and poor levels around 1.0. All of these values are independent of a pitcher’s defense. They are specifically all within the control of the pitcher, and thus, they measure a pitcher’s value exceedingly better than ERA, which fluctuates based on external factors like what type of defense is behind him, the ballpark, the weather, luck, etc.

There are incredibly enticing metrics here that signal that Shields is not only a front line starter, but that he is arriving as a present and future ace. Notice that throughout his minor league career, there was progression in each metric at nearly every level. His dom rate went up with every major promotion in the minors, ending in Triple-A before his call-up, with a rate of 9.4! He was striking out more than one batter every inning. His ctl rate stayed within the top tier throughout each promotion despite small up-ticks, and actually progressed significantly to elite levels in 2006 at Triple-A with a ridiculous rate of 0.9. He walked only six batters in 61.1 innings while striking out 64. However, it’s his cmd ratio where you really want to take notice. At each level, he adjusted from his prior season’s call-up significantly, posting rates of 2.8 and 3.4 between Single-A and Double-A ball. But his final numbers at Durham in 2006 are absolutely astonishing. A cmd ratio of 10.7?!? He was simply masterful in that 2006 season for the Bulls. And he did all of this with incredibly high BABIP rates (.352 in ’06), suggesting a future regressing to the mean in this statistic (see: this year’s .267, which will eventually rise some).

There is a real adjustment to major league batters that is usually quite cruel to rookie pitchers. Sure Zack Duke smoked everyone back in ’05 for you, but what has he done for you lately? Looking at Shields’ metrics over the course of 2006, it shows he adjusted quite well, even with a sub-par defense behind him and not much run support. He ‘brought’ the skills he showed in the minors with him to Tampa Bay and made the transition, with the expected bumps (batter adjustments), swimmingly. His 2.7 cmd ratio and ctl rate were both in the top tier for rookie pitchers, and his dom rate of 7.5 was far superior to a majority of already established veterans in the league. Despite all this, he had an ERA of 4.84, a WHIP of 1.44, and only six wins in 21 starts. As a result, he was likely was not drafted in your league, and was probably picked up by some ‘lucky’ owner a few starts into the season. However, we really need to take a second look at the underlying skills he flashed in his debut season. Despite the ‘on paper’ numbers which look a bit lackluster, his actual pitching skills were remarkably strong and almost elite for a first-year pitcher. His bad numbers were primarily the result of unlucky hit (33%) and strand (70%) rates, that were below the league’s norms.

Now, here’s where things get absolutely amazing. 2007 has shown James Shields as simply not only an elite, dominating pitcher, better than two-thirds of all other pitchers in the majors, but also as a control artist with elite command. Quite simply, with that rare mix, he’s become one of the top 20 pitchers in the game. Make no mistake, Shields might have come into this season behind Scott Kazmir as the Devil Rays second starter, but now he is without a doubt their ace. He has 116 strikeouts and 19 walks in 129.2 innings, with seven wins and four losses. If not for his bullpen, he would have been the leagues first ten-game winner. Batters have already adjusted to him (the point where previously dominant rookie pitchers get humbled) and he’s still absolutely demolishing them.

However, his metrics this year are mirroring one season in particular almost eerily; 2006 for Durham, where his skills were almost god-like. This season he has a dom rate of 8.1 (top tier), a cmd ratio of 6.1 (elite, 2nd in MLB only to CC Sabathia) and a ctl rate of 1.3 (elite and again, 2nd in MLB only to, you guessed it, CC Sabathia). Those two ’second only to CC Sabathia’ statistics mean that he has a better cmd ratio and ctl rate, for the entire season, over guys like Johan Santana, Erik Bedard, Josh Beckett, Jeremy Bonderman, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Jake Peavy, John Smoltz, Tim Lincecum, Brandon Webb, etc. The list goes on and on. Take a look up and refresh yourself with the 2006 rates to see the similarities in numbers in case you’ve forgotten them already. Oh yeah, his WHIP in Triple-A in ’06? 1.04. His WHIP in 2007 in the majors? 1.03.

That he’s done this before should send a signal to your brain to tell the little gremlins in there to turn off the fluke switch and set it aflame. Once your head has stopped smoking, you’ll kindly remember that once you’ve displayed a skill set for an extended period of time, it’s yours. Ron Shandler, whom much of this knowledge originated from, has made his career on that premise. That Shields has previously shown this elite skill set, has shown that he knows how to harness it, and that he’s still progressing as a pitcher gives him more than enough promise as one of the very best arms in the game, and I’m talking one of the top ten pitchers taken in redraft leagues next season. He also is pitching for one of the most promising teams in the game, leading one to believe his issues with wins will become a merely a footnote on his early career. With some of the games top prospects like Delmon Young and B.J Upton already joining established young stars like Carl Crawford and Scott Kazmir at the Major League level, and guys like Jeff Niemann, Wade Davis, Evan Longoria, Reid Brignac, Jacob McGee, Andrew Sonnanstine, etc., flying through their minor league system, this team will be contending for division championships within three years. Shields’ future is absolutely golden.

To solidify all these arguments for Shields with one prescient example, I’m going to use his last five starts as the final piece of my James Shields Completely Rules puzzle. These are the exact same ones where he’s gone 1-4 with a 6.19 ERA. In these starts he’s gone 32 innings, and in those 32 innings, he’s struck out 33 batters, for a dom rate of 9.3. That’s elite level. Over the same period of time he’s only walked one batter. I REPEAT, ONE BATTER! That’s a ctl rate of 0.3 and cmd ratio of 33.0!!! Not only are these metrics elite, they are in fact, numero-uno in the majors over this slice of lifetime from June 15. But yeah, look at the ERA and losses because they are more important… Are you following me here? Can you feel opportunity digging your eyeballs out with its thumbs?

Keep in mind that there are some risks associated with Shields. His fly-ball rate remains a little high, a main culprit for his 1.1 hr/9 rate. He definitely needs to work on keeping the ball down, but that’s something that most change-up artists have to work on. He was also shut down last season at 186 innings pitched, the most he’d ever logged in his pro career, and is on pace for over 220 this season. The Devil Rays won’t compete for the playoffs and have many rookie arms to try out, so as he gets up there in innings and if he doesn’t get his fly-ball rate in check (and balls start flying out a little more), he could face the same fate as last Fall. Note that he’s also pitching longer into games because of the lack of bullpen depth, so this could also wear on him. He certainly could fade in September or not even play at all. Those in redraft leagues need to take this into serious consideration before buying. However, if you are attempting to steal Shields away with a low offer, surely the risk is worth the reward. And if I was a betting man, I would put money on ‘doesn’t falter’ down the stretch. In keeper leagues, while this possible outcome is indeed annoying, in the long-term you’ll have little reason to worry.

James Shields has proven himself to be one of the best pitchers in the game right now and into the future, so why does he qualify for a “Steal Low” article? Because of these exact five starts. The guy still gets absolutely no love. Everyone is looking at the earned runs allowed and the losses and they’re getting ready to move him. They’re freaked that perhaps his first half was a fluke and he’s going to turn back into a pumpkin, and they’d be horrifically wrong and kind of crazy to think a human can turn into a pumpkin. And that’s where you, dear reader, must pounce. Play up those runs! Talk about how he’s not going to win anything from here on out and Tampa Bay is a losing team and he might get shut down come September. It’ll be harder to pry Shields away in keeper leagues, but if you really play up the ‘hitting the wall’ and ‘fluke’ cards, you stand a good bet of getting a very nice deal on him. In every incarnation of keeper league, he was likely acquired for very little, and he can likely be kept for the same. This skyrockets his value. The ‘on paper’ devaluation of Shields is the perfect buying opportunity on an ace for potentially half his value. Now get out there and make someone’s day!

*Postscript – In his start against the Yankees on Thursday, July 12, Shields was hit for five earned runs in six innings, nine hits, one walk and two strikeouts. The long ball hurt him again tonight as he gave up three home runs, all in the fourth inning and two of them back-to-back. Keep in mind he’s facing one of the most potent offenses in the game, after some well-needed rest. It was obvious that the jitters once again got to him (he committed an error himself). However, it’s important to note that throughout all of this, he was still getting early two-strike counts on many of the batters. Bumps are to be expected, as he is after all, still only a second-year player. Even the best pitchers have bad outings. However, this start should only serve to help you net Shields for even cheaper. Don’t overreact like you are hoping some other owners already are.

Matthew St-Germain is growing old. You can catch up with him in the forums where he dogmatically posts under the alias bloodface.
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