Buying a James Shields rebound

This is not the season the Padres were hoping for when they mortgaged their bright future for a win-now mentality team. Instead of a powerhouse running the NL West, they’ve turned to facing speculation that they might sell anything not bolted down, and try to recover a fraction of what they spent on an underwhelming product. One of the biggest moves was signing marquee free agent SP James Shields to a four-year, $75 MM contract with an option year tacked on at the end. And Shields, just like almost all the rest of the offseason additions, has flopped so far. Having only posted an ERA over 3.50 and a fWAR under 4.0 (all-star caliber) once each over the last four seasons, he seemed about as sure a bet as you could ask from a pitcher. And into this season, with an ERA that just recently dipped below 4.00 and on pace for less than 1.5 fWAR (below average), Shields is just the latest example of the dangers of betting on pitching.

On the heels of last week’s article about Ubaldo Jimenez figuring himself out, I got into a “glass half full” type of mood. I saw little benefit in adding to the plethora of articles retroactively picking apart and bashing the Padres’ countless big risk/reward moves. Instead, are there signs that Shields is going to bounce back in the second half (besides his obvious gem the other day)? After all, he started 2014 off poorly as well, only to finish with another fantastic season.

So let’s dig.

Perhaps the most effective way to forecast a player’s rest of season (ROS) value is simply looking at forecast systems designed for just that. Fabled sabermetrician Mitchel G. Lichtman has written countless articles and even more tweets on the subject, with objective data to back up his claims that projection systems are incredibly accurate. And the part that actually pertains to this article is that they actually like Shields’ performance ROS. Despite age not being on his side, tons of miles logged on his arm and a slow start, the three main systems see him as, still, an All-Star pitcher with an ERA sub-3.50.

  2015 stats ZiPS Steamer Depth Charts
ERA 3.92 3.44 3.47 3.45
FIP 4.20 3.36 3.38 3.37
fWAR 0.8 1.5 1.4 1.4

As seen through the chart, impending improvement appears across the board for the righty. But simply stating other projections doesn’t reveal much.

Something ab0ut Shields’ 2015 season jumps out immediately when looking at his stat lines. His strikeout rate is at a career high 26.6% rate, over seven points higher than last season’s mark. This has been thanks in large part to a 10% decrease in opposing contact outside of the strike zone. Yet the results aren’t following the outstanding peripherals that his improved filth would indicate.

None of Shields’ pitches have been “better” by weighted values according to FanGraphs and PITCHf/x data, even though he’s missing more bats. Historically, this has been followed by better run suppression since strikeout rates stabilize early and don’t stray much once they are stable, and run suppression is incredibly volatile and reliant on luck.

Fueling his increase in strikeouts is a new approach on the mound, and perhaps behind the dish as well in the form of the game caller. He’s never been a pitcher who is known for pounding the zone, but he’s staying even farther down and out this season than his past few. The zone charts below:

plot_profile (3)

plot_profile (4)

Lower parts of the strike zone (and below it) are more prone to contact, but also less prone to power. This kind of approach can clearly help hinder quality of contact for opponents. And for Shields, who throws an excellent changeup that’s hard to hit no matter where he puts it, he doesn’t have to worry as much as most pitchers about pounding down low. As shown by his improvement in opposing contact percentage, he still gets whiffs throughout the entire zone, so why not stay somewhere that the hitters won’t damage him as much?

With a new approach and the underlying numbers to make it work, it’s actually more surprising that Shields has been so poor this season than maybe any other disappointment in San Diego. The trends line up where he should start contributing more positively than we’ve seen so far. Everyone seems to be selling Shields at whatever price they can get, even the Padres organization has been speculated to include large sums of cash to make him easier to trade if they find a suitor. But if I’m a baseball investor, I’m buying up all shares of Shieldsy that I can get my hands on.

 

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James Krueger
James lives in Tampa, Florida and is often one of the 10,000 people you can see at Rays' home games. He's a huge fan of prospects, loves analyzing swing mechanics, and will eat a "Top 100" list for breakfast. Dynasty leagues are his forte, especially rebuilding teams; building a farm system is the best part.