The 2011 version of James Shields is representative of a pitcher’s evolution. Adapting to the pitching backwards or pitching 2.0 method, the 29-year-old uses a cocktail of pitches to set up opposing batters. Although Shields has matured as a pitcher over the years, the key ingredient to his success remains his signature changeup.
As the story goes, Shields learned how to throw a changeup in a backyard session with his older brother – a former left-handed pitcher – while he continued rehab from 2002 shoulder surgery. From there, the off-speed pitch evolved from a backyard project to a true put-away pitch. Using the changeup as his out pitch, Shields jumped from a 16th round pick in the 2000 draft to a three-time opening day starter and the owner of nearly every record for a Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher.
Shields had mixed results upon return from his earlier arm injury. That said, by January 2006, a 24-year-old pitcher by the name of Jamie Shields had the best changeup in the Devil Rays system. Five months later, Shields graduated from the Triple-A level and entered the rotation he has anchored for the better part of the last five years.
As a rookie, young “Jamie” relied heavily on his go-to pitch. During the 2006 season, he threw a changeup more than a third of the time; the highest usage of his career. Since his rookie season, the usage of Shields’ changeup has bounced between 25-30%, settling at just over 27% for his career.
From the beginning, the changeup has been Shields’ most effective pitch. According to pitch values located on fangraphs.com, it has been one of the best pitches of its kind since he debuted in 2006. Using the counting form of pitch values (wCH), the changeup of James Shields has the fourth-best pitch value (68.9) since 2006. The only three changeups that have racked up more value over that time belong to Cole Hamels (82.1), Johan Santana (75.6) and Tim Lincecum (73.4).
Because wCH is a counting stat, Shields durability helps him rack up the value of his changeup. To get a better understanding of how Shields’ changeup ranks against the top off-speed pitches in the league we can use another form of wCH called wCH/C. This ranks the effectiveness of the pitch on a per 100 pitch basis.
Setting the bar at a minimum of 700 innings since 2006 to get some of the newcomers like Zach Britton out of the way, Shields’ changeup ranks 10th best in the major leagues (1.58 wCH/C). Some notable changeup artists behind Shields include Matt Cain, John Danks, Jered Weaver, Jon Lester, and Justin Verlander.
Looking at pitch f/x data located on texasleaugers.com (2008 to 2011) Shields has used offspeed pitch as a weapon against both left-handed and right-handed batters. The changeup has been called an equalizer by some, and that is definitely true of Shields going against the platoon split. Since 2008, Shields has thrown a whopping 1680 changeups against lefties. He has induced a whiff over 300 times or just about 18%. While Shields uses the changeup a bit less against righties, it is still tough for them to make contact. Righties have seen 1085 changeups from Shields since 2008. They’ve swung and missed at a whopping 24% of them (approximately 260 whiffs).
“Shields in Tampa Bay has maybe the best one,” Angels designated hitter Bobby Abreu said. “You think it’s a fastball, and then it’s gone. It’s hard to pick up and hard to hit. When you hit one, sometimes you’re just fouling it off to save the at-bat. It’s hard to make solid contact.”
The left-handed Abreu has fared pretty well against Shields overall; however, he has missed one-third of the changeups coming from Shields’ right hand.
As pitchers age, they tend to lose velocity. For some that also means effectiveness. On the other hand, for a cerebral assassin like Shields who relies on intelligence and softer stuff for success, the aging curve may not be as steep. Ultimately, the length of Shields’ career as a successful major league starter will depend on health of course, but also the effectiveness of his changeup. As long as Shields continues to set up batters and throw down a hammer change, the next six-plus years of his career should go a lot like the first six; perhaps even better.