There have been many conversations among Royals fans about the “aceness” of James Shields. Is he just a really good pitcher or is he a legitimate ace?
I tend to pay attention to the past 3 years of data, which is why I originally didn’t consider James Shields an ace when he came to Kansas City. His ERA blew up in 2010, finishing at an unsightly 5.00 on the year.
However, I think that while we weren’t looking, James Shields has become an ace by just about any standard. It would actually be difficult to make a case against him.
Most baseball fans have an internal idea of what an “ace” is: some subjective standard that measures just how much dominance a pitcher must display before he is bestowed with the title.
Many people think the most important attribute of an ace is the ability to compete for an ERA title. Some believe that strikeouts are the key. Others believe that reliability is the most important attribute. For most of us, it is some combination of these three factors—with our preferences leaning slightly one way or another.
Generally, though, we agree on some things.
Aces usually have to throw at least 200 innings a season, have a consistently low ERA, and throw mostly quality starts.
From 2011-2013 only nine pitchers have thrown an average of 200 innings per season and had an ERA+ of 115 or higher. James Shields has a higher ERA+ in that time than pitchers who are considered unquestionable aces, especially Felix Hernandez, Cole Hamels, and David Price.
Something intangible seems to keep James Shields just on the periphery of most “Ace” conversations when he should be smack dab in the middle. It’s not that he doesn’t have the stuff to achieve the most elite level of play, either.
In 2011, he finished third in Cy Young voting. In 2012, he threw a complete game shutout on just 98 pitches. He allowed just three hits, no walks and struck out eleven. In his final game that year, he threw another complete game, this time only allowing two hits and striking out fifteen.
I think that most fans do not consider Shields on par with Verlander, Hernandez and Price because he hasn’t put together a truly exceptional full season. Despite putting up a 124 ERA+ from 2011 to 2013, he has never had an ERA+ above 134. That comes nowhere near the 174 that King Felix posted in 2010, or the 172 by Verlander in 2011,
Shields is more consistent. A grinder. He doesn’t fence with batters like Price or Kuroda, parrying bats with overpowering breaking pitches. Shields is a pitbull, determined to stand his ground even if he gets a little scuffed up in the fight. He’s steadier, healthier and more consistent than most, but his top end performance isn’t in the stratosphere alongside Verlander and Hernandez. Shields doesn’t have great stuff. It’s just good stuff.
However, somehow, his stuff is so consistently good that’s he’s achieved greatness. Being among the top five pitchers in the game over the course of three years should make anyone an ace. Even though Shields doesn’t seem like the creme de la creme, maybe we should start thinking of him as the ace he’s proven to be.