Much to Kansas City’s likely chagrin, James Shields probably intends to become a free agent at year’s end, unless he dislikes large piles of money. There were some reports earlier in the year that Shields was going to look for a $100M+ deal in the offseason, even a Zack Greinke-type contract. Shields and his associates have refuted such rumors, but I would imagine Shields is gunning for more money rather than less money. Are there any red flags that might give a team pause about giving him a long term deal?
Let’s start with the basics. Shields is a thoroughbred workhorse. Every year since 2007 has seen a 200+ inning season from him. His strikeout rate and walk rate have remained relatively stable throughout his career. From 2011-2013, Shields ran out FIP values of 3.42, 3.47, and 3.47. James Shields is synonymous with consistency. One issue that hasn’t been an issue with the Royals is home runs. Shields had a bit of a homer problem as a member of the Rays, but moving to the AL Central seems to have reduced that problem. The Rays and the Royals have similar home-run suppressing home parks, but Shields did have to pitch against the Yankees, Blue Jays, Orioles, and Red Sox more often than other pitchers when he was with the Rays. Those are some homer-friendly parks.
What about the actual stuff that he throws? Shields is bucking the normal trend by actually increasing his velocity as he has aged rather than decreasing it. He has maintained a good velocity differential between his hard stuff and his slower stuff, so velocity doesn’t appear to be a problem.
Shields is essentially trading movement for extra velocity, as his four seam and sinker might have a bit less horizontal movement than before. Shields’ curveball isn’t what it used to be in terms of horizontal or vertical movement, and he has responded by decreasing its usage in favor of a cutter. Either that, or he simply believes the cutter is a better pitch. Shields’ whiff rates haven’t changed too much on any pitch except for the cutter, whose whiff rate has been trending upward. Overall, it would seem that Shields has been able to alter his repertoire as needed to keep getting hitters out.
In 2014, the cutter actually appears to be making him a bit better. His K% has ticked up, his BB% has ticked down, and he’s getting a few more grounders than in 2013. The cutter is actually closer to his changeup in velocity than his four seamer or sinker, but it breaks in a different direction. That makes it difficult for hitters to identify which pitch is coming at them in a two strike count. Shields has great deception because of this.
After a somewhat closer examination, it’s difficult to pick out a red flag. He’s healthy, he’s hitting the strike zone more than last year, his release point is consistent, and his statistical indicators are stable. I suppose if there were a red flag, it would simply be his age. He will turn 33 years old during the upcoming offseason. However, another older pitcher, Cliff Lee, has been doing very well despite his age. Over the past 3 calendar years, Shields has basically been Cliff Lee, but with slightly fewer strikeouts and a bit more walks.
Lee got a 5yr/$120M contract from the Phillies, and he was a little over 32 years old when he signed it. Granted, Lee was better in the years leading up to that contract, but the recent salary inflation suggests that Shields will probably look somewhere in this range. The team who gets him will probably be very happy.