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Is James Shields ELITE?

Who takes the hill in a Wild Card play-in?

Watch as he draws the cameraman's focus through force of personality alone
Watch as he draws the cameraman's focus through force of personality alone
Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports

The media sometimes labels Shields as a "manufactured ace" (or "meme pitcher" if you get your news from twitter).  He doesn't strike out a ton of hitters, he doesn't light up the radar gun, and his fWAR perpetually touches the cusp of what analysts consider "top of the rotation."

Strictly speaking, of course James Shields is an ace.  Most metrics are going to rate what he did on the field in 2014 as one of the 25 or so best performances for starters in the MLB.  Couple that with an fWAR number that ranked right between Cole Hamels and Madison Bumgarner - two unquestioned aces - and it's clear that he is a top-25 pitcher.  You always have a good chance to win when James Shields is on the mound (unless you are the 2014 Padres because those guys couldn't score).

With the exciting but still relatively unproven combination of Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross as aces-in-waiting there is still potentially some drama as to whether or not Shields will be the Padres' best pitcher heading into the end of 2015.  Shields is a great pitcher who has had a phenomenal career, but there is a ceiling to his performance. Heck, at this point Shields and Ross have been to the same number of All-Star games.  But does that make for an ELITE starter or a STEALTH SUPERSTAR TM?


30+ starts, 220+ innings, ERA in the low-3s - it's clockwork awesome at this point in Big Game James' career.  At this point his seasons are a bit like a Dire Straits album - you know it will be pretty good, at times brilliant, and you will always have fond memories of it, but it won't hold a candle to Thriller, Master of Puppets, Come Away With Me, or Trap Lord.

But what about when Mark Knopfler left Dire Straits and made some of the best music of his life?  In what ways can we expect Shields to ascend in his new surroundings?  It is tempting to pencil in every pitching acquisition to experience an automatic bump in production thanks to the San Diego triumvirate of Petco Park factors, savvy coaching from Bud Black and Darren Ballsley, and cheap and plentiful fish tacos.  The supposition of success is complicated with Shields.  The Padres have never before acquired an established star pitcher at the peak of his powers.  2015 James Shields is a far cry from aging Greg Maddux or pillow-contract Aaron Harang (twinkie contract?).  Shields' tenure in San Diego will serve as a much-needed case study on how known commodities benefit from the Petco effect.

While the Trop and Kaufman Stadium could both be considered pitcher's parks, the AL Central and AL East are dramatically different run scoring environments from the NL West.  The move to the NL should provide Shields with the standard boost - facing pitchers instead of DHs.  Additionally, as an AL-only pitcher up to this point, Shields will be facing a whole new book of hitters who haven't seen him much - this matchup typically favors pitchers.  Like when you use the "are you an archaeologist?" line on a new audience.  IT KILLS.

The park and league adjustments won't factor in changes in his approach that could take place upon arrival in San DIego.  Already an ELITE control pitcher - Big Game James could see his bb/9 drop even further in his less-threatening surroundings.  Pitchers like Ian Kennedy, Tyson Ross, and Andrew Cashner all benefited from increased aggressiveness within Petco's distant walls.  Always dependent on sharp secondary stuff, there's a chance we can see Shields rely more on his solid but under-utilized fastball - like how you rely on looks around girls you are obviously too good for.

Another stealthy benefit to the Shields addition is that it indirectly improves the bullpen (ELITE BULLPEN).  The former number one pick's greatest strength as a pro has been his ability to consistently take the rock and pitch deep into games.  While this saves the bullpen, Shields' addition to an already strong list of rotation candidates forces other talented candidates into relief depth.  With Maurer, Torres, and Morrow penciled in as power relievers instead of fifth starter candidates, Bud Black is in an enviable position managing the tragedy of riches.  And who doesn't want the Monster Jam PA announcer to yell ELITE BULLPEN during every pitching change?

We know about Shields' durability and pitching acumen.  There are however parts of his makeup that aren't captured by advanced metrics.  Did you know he has a dynamite pickoff move? More importantly, Shields brings a reputation of fiery temperament coupled with laser-like focus in big moments.  He bounces back from bad performances, he stops losing streaks, and he doesn't back down from pressure situations.  Even after his poor performance in game 1 of the 2014 World Series, Shields showed major guts by going into hostile territory and pitching an excellent game 5.  Ideally, in a do-or-die game you want to send out a pitcher who has been there before and knows how to handle himself (even if you eventually want to send out Ricky Vaughn)


Touching on Shields' playoff record - for a pitcher who built his career around showing up in big games, his postseason stats don't look all that impressive.  Granted we are dealing with extremely small sample sizes - but that's what we said about Jake Peavy who is now 1-5 with a 7.98 ERA over 9 postseason starts.  Obviously there isn't a 1:1 correlation between postseason stats and future postseason performance, but I don't think you can just type "small sample size!" then curl back up in your snuggie, pretend it never happened, and post another ghetto "prank" video on facebook.

You have to also analyze the reality of his contract situation.  When you look at the top-20 most productive pitchers of the last two seasons by fWAR (Shields is #13 by the way) how many of them wouldn't have gotten a better contract offer than the 4 years/$80 million that Shields reportedly got? Throw out old or broken pitchers like Kuroda, and Wainwright  and you're left with maybe Phil Hughes and the still living but rapidly necrotizing Justin Verlander.

Max Scherzer is 3 years younger than Shields, but got around 3x as much guaranteed money this offseason.  They are both signed through their age-37 seasons.  Scherzer will be getting an AAV of around $26 million in those last four seasons whereas Shields will be getting just $19m.  It's not an apples to apples comparison since the Nationals are paying a premium to lock up Scherzer in his supposed "prime" years, but the Yankees spent almost as much to lock up an already declining CC Sabathia in 2012.  Shields will actually be getting a lighter contract than Kevin Brown got all the way back in 1999 at the age of 34 (6 years, $105m).  Are the Padres benefiting from a mismanaged free agency (non-elite sports representation) or do MLB front offices know something we don't?

Predicting Shields' decline is tricky business.  On the one hand he is entering his age-33 season.  On the other, he hasn't shown a single sign of physical decline.  The only statistical dropoff we've seen from him is a drop in k/9, which was accompanied by a precipitous drop in bb/9.  Shields has never been overly-dependent on strikeouts, but it seems the drop-off since joining the Royals is due more to coaching factors than any physical decline.  The Royals were an ELITE run-prevention unit in the last two seasons.  Shields avoided deeper counts by pitching to weak contact - a strategy that worked well all season.  It will be interesting to see how this plays out in front of a team that is weaker defensively, but plays in a much duller offensive environment.  Shields may show more aggression at Petco and his swinging-strike% and chase% suggest that he can still generate strikeouts when needed.

Shields' repertoire is one of the most encouraging aspects of his supposed aging curve. His fastball velocity is actually higher than it has ever been (average 92.5 mph).  This is highly unusual for a pitcher in his 30s, but Shields' velocity has been trending steadily upward his entire career.  Though he is not a power pitcher, there was only one starter in the MLB last year that threw harder than Shields at his age.  It remains to be seen whether he will lean more on his fastball in Petco Park or continue to try to fool hitters with his sharp secondary stuff.

A four-year deal generally isn't that onerous (unless you went to a private college BOOM).  However, this deal goes through Shields' age-37 season - and Shields will be an especially high-mileage arm at 37.  High-mileage isn't always bad - there is a big difference between a '96 Dodge Neon with a lot of miles and a glorious W124 Mercedes with a lot of miles.  Certain kinds of pitchers age better than others.  Shields eschews traditional breaking balls and relies on a very strong cutter and changeup combination, while only occasionally mixing in a knuckle curveball.  The way he approaches hitters is almost akin to a left-handed starter.  His pitch usage is most similar to guys like Roy Halladay, Dan Haren, and Mark Buehrle.  Those guys all stayed successful when the velocity goblins eventually stole their fastball gains.  With the cutter and changeup as Shields' "out" pitches, it would seem that he could age better than a starter like CJ Wilson or Tyson Ross.  And now we take a moment to remember Roy Halladay riding off into the sunset to become Roy Lelladay.

For many "buyers" of pitching talent, the acquisition of the proverbial ELITE TM pitcher is their gusto in the hypothetical do-or-die game.  Obviously, the team has to reach that late-season showdown, or Wild Card play-in, or World Series game 7 for any of this to have relevance, but the thrill behind elite pitching talent is framed around this hypothetical.  In the last few seasons it looked like Ross or Cashner had the upside to pitch like top-10 starters - whether they can sustain that remains to be seen.  Shields may never break into the mythical upper echelon of ELITE starters (though a great postseason helped propel a statistically similar Madison Bumgarner into that territory), but the value he accumulates over the course of the season should help the Padres get to the point where it actually makes sense to have this conversation.