James Shields for James Shields for

Reality Check: James Shields Is Not An Ace


Will they or won’t they? The James Shields for Wil Myers trade rumors just won’t go away and I for one am getting tired of them. Even if given the chance to make that deal straight up, I’d tell the Rays no thanks. Of course now we’re hearing the Royals would have to give up Myers and something else.

Myers in one hand is worth more than Shields in the other. (Photo Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

Walk away Dayton, walk away.

Myers may never amount to anything in the major leagues, but he is a potential impact bat and one of the best the Kansas City organization has developed in their history. Trading six years of control of said impact bat for a pitcher is not a wise move unless:

  • You know you are in a place to contend and making the deal puts in in the mix to not just win a division but legitimately reach the World Series.
  • You get a young, stud pitcher who would front many if not most of the rotations in baseball either immediately or down the road. The point here is that you need to land a true and legitimate ace, or a pitcher that you believe can develop into that.

When it comes to James Shields and the Royals, neither of these conditions are met.

On the first issue, adding James Shields would get Kansas City much closer to having a bonafide major league rotation. It’s something we haven’t seen around these parts in a very, very long time and it’s certainly something I’d love to see (who wouldn’t?). However, even with Shields in the fold, the Detroit Tigers are still the favorites to win the AL Central and given the quality of teams in the AL East and AL West these days, it’s safe to say that second in this division isn’t going to land a wildcard spot. As much as I hate to admit it, there’s also a real good argument to be made that the Chicago White Sox would still be above KC in the division’s pecking order, especially if the Royals send will Myers packing to get another starting pitcher.

On the second condition James Shields is obviously not young. He will turn 31 years old in two weeks, but that doesn’t bother me so much since he’d likely only be with the Royals for the two years and $21 million left on his current contract.

What people continue to miss, and for the life of me I can’t figure out why, is that James Shields is not a stud pitcher. Maybe it’s because he pitches for the Rays and they tend do things right – at least recently. Maybe it’s because he got tagged with the nickname “Big Game James” along the way and people put too much stock into that. Whatever the reason for the general perception, the belief that James Shields is an ace is completely misguided.

It’s a myth and the Royals appear to be chasing it.

In seven major league seasons, Shields has thrown 1,454.2 innings pitched which averages out to nearly 208 innings per year. That’s fantastic. He takes the ball every fifth day and gives his team a chance to win. Of course just taking the ball when it’s your turn is just part of the equation. Heck, even Kyle Davies and Luke Hochevar have managed that along the way.

To average 208 innings per year you also have to go deep into games and that is one area Shields truly excels as he’s averaged 6.2 innings per start. That would, without a doubt, be a revelation in Kansas City as we all to often go a week or significantly longer without our starter walking to the mound in the seventh inning.

Since joining the Rays rotation back in 2006, James Shields is ninth in all of baseball when it comes to innings pitched.

Of course some of that is circumstantial since many careers have started and ended in that seven year stretch and as you can tell by the list of eight guys above him, it doesn’t mean you are an ace, or even a #2 starter (see Arroyo, Bronson). Some of these guys are the cream of the crop in baseball but for me the above contains only three no doubt aces (Verlander, Hernandez and Halladay) with two others either at that level or just on the cusp (Sabathia and Cain) depending on how narrowly you want to define things.

Regardless of definition though, if durability and ability to pitch deep into games were the only criteria, I’d be fully on board with the thinking that Shields belongs in the pantheon of major league aces.

Of course it’s about much, much more than that.

Moving on to other statistical measures, Shields has an excellent 3.68 SO/BB ratio since making his major league debut. If you’re wondering where he ranks among starters to throw 500 or more innings between 2006 and 2012, the answer is 11th, right behind the likes of Zack Greinke, Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee, Madison Bumgarner, Sabathia, Halladay and Haren. Included in that group above him are two pitchers – John Smoltz and Mike Mussina – who are no longer active. Strangely enough #2 on this list, with a 4.70 SO/BB, is former Twins pitcher Kevin Slowey who spent 2012 in Triple-A pitching poorly.

Over the years Shields has maintained his walk rate and has kept it at exactly 2.3 walks per nine innings each of the last three seasons. While doing that he’s bumped up his strikeout rate. His career SO/9 sits at 7.7 but in the last three seasons he’s gone from 8.3 to 8.1 to a career best 8.8 in 2012. That 7.73 career mark ranks 47th in baseball for pitchers to throw 500 or more innings since 2006. However, if we bump the innings requirement up to 1,000 he shoots up to 17th.

Interestingly enough Scott Baker who I regard as the biggest missed opportunity of the Royals offseason thus far has the same career 2.1 BB/9 as Shields, has a 7.2 SO/9 and has pushed that rate into the eights as he’s matured. In terms of SO/BB since 2006, Baker ranks 13th, just two spots behind Big Game James.

Here are his ranks in some other statistical categories using the same years (2006-2012) and same 500 inning minimum as I did for all of the above. On each stat I’ve noted a couple names that stick out. Either because the Royals recently acquired them (that should be a red flag for you), they are still on the market, or to give a general sense of some of the names around Shields.

Now, if you’re really paying attention – or even just kind of paying attention – you probably noticed that when I listed the nine pitchers who have logged the most innings since 2006 that I included their career ERA+ in each case until I got to Shields.

It was intentional and I regard this statistical measure to be one of the most damning pieces of evidence that proves he is not an ace – though I think his outside the upper echelon ranking in the other areas builds a strong case on it’s own. Before I reveal his number, feel free to go back up and look at the ERA+ for the other eight pitchers in the bulleted list. Or I can sum it up for you … You have Halladay at the top with a mark of 134, Verlander, Hernandez, Sabathia and Cain in the 120s, Buerhle at 119 and Haren at 116. At the bottom you have Arroyo with his slightly above league average 104 ERA+.

James Shields career ERA+ is currently at … 107.

Only twice in seven seasons has he recorded a mark better than Cain’s career 124 ERA+ and last season Shields finished at 108. Recent acquisitions Ervin Santana and Jeremy Guthrie have career marks of 97 and 103 respectively. Guthrie’s 2012 performance as a Royal worked out to a mark of 130.

If we are asking the question would adding Shields upgrade the rotation, the answer is decidedly yes. He would move to the front of the line and become the Royals best starting pitcher while bumping someone like Luis Mendoza or Will Smith out of the mix.

However, if we are asking the question is James Shields an ace, then the answer is decidedly no.

Don’t get me wrong, he’s a very good pitcher but he’s not great and if I’m going to watch one of the top-5 prospects in all of baseball get dealt, Dayton Moore better have something great coming our way. James Shields is a lot closer to the Bakers and Guthries of the world than he is to the Cains and Buehrles out there. He also light years from belonging to the real aces in baseball like Verlander, David Price and Clayton Kershaw.

There are many reasons that Shields is the starter that Tampa Bay is most willing to trade right now and make no mistake it’s not just a matter of the dollars. They know all of the above. They know he’s not an ace. They know a lot of people around the game, especially teams like the Royals (who are hardly forward thinking in their evaluations) perceive him to be one. Aside from the reliability and durability, the Rays know he’s the most easily replaced in their rotation in terms of results relative to league average. Understand though, that’s not to slam James Shields as we’re talking about a rotation that one through five is currently better than anything Kansas City can send to the mound on Opening Day.

Wil Myers straight up for Shields is simply too steep a price for what the Royals would get back in return. Even if Myers is just major league average or slightly above average during the next six years, James Shields would have to pitch at a level beyond his career best in the next two seasons to make it a worthwhile trade for Kansas City. Take the six years versus two years piece and then throw in the $21 million they would have to pay Shields versus the major league minimum of about $1 million for the next two season combined that Myers would cost them. It’s starting to look like an albatross of a trade and my assessment doesn’t even factor in that Myers could hit the ground running in a Ryan Braun like fashion. It’s not likely since a very select few have Braun’s impact right off the bat, but Myers has that level of talent.

The ultimate bottom line here is that for a player of Wil Myers’ potential, landing a good #2 starter is simply not good enough.