What’s Wrong With James Shields?


Aug 1, 2013; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Kansas City Royals starting pitcher

James Shields

(33) walks off the field after completing the fourth inning against the Minnesota Twins at Target Field. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

James Shields had one of the worst starts of his career this past Tuesday night when he allowed seven runs in six innings in a loss to the Minnesota Twins. Many, including the Royals television broadcasters, said the start was just a blip, and that sometimes these things happen. This is true, except Tuesday night’s start has been building up for some time now.

Here is a string of tweets I sent out the night of Shields’ start.

See a pattern?

Something happened to Shields, whether it was mechanical or an injury, starting with his outing against St. Louis on May 27. Leading up to that start Shields was a pitcher who could have been considered for the Cy Young race had it not been for his 2-5 record. He had a 2.47 ERA, .580 OPS against, 69 strikeouts in 73 innings pitched, and a WHIP under 1.000. The fact that the Royals were 3-7 in those 10 starts was certainly not his fault.

But then the St. Louis start happened.

Shields walked five batters and allowed nine hits while giving up six runs in six innings. He struck out just four batters. There were only two innings in that start where he did not allow a run, and he had three innings where he had to throw 21 pitches or more. There was absolutely nothing sharp about his performance that night.

From May 27 on, Shields has the following statistical line:

4.11 ERA, .292 BA against, .793 OPS against, 62 strikeouts in 87.2 innings pitched, 100 hits allowed, and a 1.528 WHIP

His current strikeouts per nine innings, 7.3, is the lowest of his career, and that includes the two good months of this season. The same can be said of his walks per nine innings (2.7, highest of his career) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (2.67, lowest of his career).

Something isn’t right.

There are a few theories floating around about why Shields is struggling.

The first is Salvador Perez. Brandon H., a.k.a. @BHIndepMO, says that Shields is much better with Perez behind the plate than with George Kottaras (Kottaras was the catcher on Tuesday night).

He tweeted this out after Tuesday’s game.

This is a very stark difference, yes? His two terrible starts – the St. Louis start and Tuesday’s start – were both with Kottaras behind the plate, too.

The issue here is four of those starts came in the period where James Shields has been all messed up. In Shields first start with Kottaras, he threw seven inning, walked none, struck out seven, and allowed only two runs (a two-run homer in the first inning). From the second inning on he never faced more than four batters in an inning.

The numbers we care about here are his numbers from May 27 on. Here is what Shields has done with Perez as his catcher pre and post May 27.

Pre: 2.45 ERA, 0.955 WHIP, 24.3 K%, 5.9 BB%, .205 BA against, .312 SLG against, .568 OPS against

Post: 2.62 ERA, 1.423 WHIP, 17.2%, 8.4%, .279 BA against, .401 SLG against, .742 OPS against

No question the ERA is great with Shields, but it is clear he is dealing a tighter margin of error as he is allowing more base runners, walking more batters, striking out fewer batters (read: allowing more contact), and is allowing harder contact. Shields issues since the end of May are happening whether Perez or Kottaras is behind the plate.

Yes, he is doing worse with Kottaras than with Perez for the season, but I don’t think it is the answer to why he has struggled since May 27.

Another theory about Shields is him trying to adjust to the warm weather in Kansas City. For his entire career he has been able to make all of his home starts in an air-conditioned dome in Tampa Bay, a luxury he no longer has in the (typically) sweltering summer heat of Kansas City. It could be that the adjustment to the heat is taking a while because Shields didn’t properly train for it in the offseason because he didn’t know what kind of humid situation he was getting himself into. And when one considers how intense he gets on the mound, it could be reasoned his energy level drops off significantly in warmer weather.

Setting the “Hot” thermometer at 80 degrees – which conveniently splits his 13 starts since June 1 to 7 hot games and 6 cool games – it does not appear Shields is affected by the weather too much.

Hot Games: 44.1 IP, 12 BB, 31 K, 4.67 ERA, 1.399 WHIP

Cool Games: 37.1 IP, 17 BB, 27 K, 2.65 ERA, 1.308 WHIP

In the hottest game he has played in – a June 12 start where game time temperature was 92 degrees – Shields went 7 innings and allowed just two runs on 7 hits, 2 walks and 6 strikeouts against the Detroit Tigers in Kansas City. It wasn’t a dominating start by any means, but considering the opponent and the result it was a pretty good start.

The second hottest game he’s pitched in this season was the 87 degree affair he appeared in on Tuesday. We know what happened there. If you take out Tuesday – which you can’t, but I am anyway – Shields has a 3.76 ERA and a 1.252 WHIP in games 80 degrees or warmer since June 1.

There is not a lot of data to work with this season in terms of how the weather effects Shields, but the early returns are not eye-popping. Not yet, anyway.

I’m not sure what is wrong with Shields, but I do know something is not right. His performance was likely going to drop from what he accomplished in his first 10 starts, but the fall has been heavier than one would expect. If it were not for the defense behind him, things could be a lot worse for Shields. Consider that the last time Shields had a season WHIP over 1.500 he had an ERA of 5.18. During this stretch now where his WHIP is up over 1.500 his ERA is a more workable 4.11.

The .292 batting average against and 1.528 WHIP he’s put together for the Royals the last two months is not something that is going to breed continued excellence. Hopefully it gets worked out soon.