I can’t help but feel slightly embarrassed for James Shields when I hear guys on the sports networks calling him “Big Game James”. While he had a pretty good postseason for the Rays in 2008 (a while back), his career post-season numbers are hardly worthy of a (positive) nickname: a 5.46 ERA and 4.42 FIP. That’s over 59.1 innings in eleven starts. I have no doubt that he gets fired up for big games, and probably boosts team morale. He even has a few end-of-regular-season quality starts. (And he finished in the top 10 in WPA three times: 2007,2011,2013, which may have contributed to this impression of “clutch” performance…?) But nobody with a playoffs ERA and FIP that high deserves the “Big Game” monicker.
That aside, we know that Shields is one of the best, most reliable pitchers in baseball. It has been said a thousand times this off-season that he is good for 30+ starts and 200+ innings every year. Seeing as how he is 33 years old now, that probably won’t continue for too many more seasons, but it has been true up to this point. And while his workhorse numbers are bona fide, the quality of those innings pitched are also established. The question is not whether or not he is a good pitcher, but is he really one of the best?
Durability and dependability are definitely very important features of a good pitcher. Those things don’t show up in K-rates or ERA, but nobody would deny that having your guy in there every 5th day is a boost for morale and key to a pitching staff that might otherwise have to settle for below-league-average replacements (in the case of injury). So right away we will give Shields a “+” for this quality.
He has the quantity, so how about the quality? 2010 was an off year for Shields, largely due to career worsts in LOB%, BABIP and HR/FB. But over the past 4 seasons (2011-14), he has been really darn good. Let’s take a look at two big stats: ERA(-) and fWAR. I realize this is only one way of looking at a pitcher. There are K-rates and xFIP and Swinging Strike% and all of that. But over 4 seasons, I think we can make a pretty good, general estimation of a pitcher from these two big stats. I also decided to go with average rank, rather than cumulative rank. I did this because of things like: Roy Halladay was a big time pitcher in 2010, but he didn’t play in 2014. The reverse for Stephen Strasburg (though Strasburg did play in 2010; just not very much).
Shields had an ERA(-) at 91 or below in all four seasons. He ranked anywhere from 12th to 29th in MLB in this category, for an average of 19th.
He faired slightly better in fWAR, ranging between 3.7-4.5, or 12th to 19th in MLB. That’s an average of about 16th in the league.
Seeing as how Shields tends to be about 16th-19th place in both stats, we might safely say that, while he’s not an “elite” pitcher in the sense that he challenges for the Cy Young Award every year, he could/would be considered the “ace” on at least 10-12 teams, and since some teams have more than one of the top 15 pitchers, we might assume he’d be the ace on half the teams in the league. And as a #2 guy, he would probably be the best #2 guy on far more than half the teams in the league.
So what does all of this mean, exactly? In my opinion, it adds up to saying that the Padres just bought themselves a second-tier ace, which is nothing to scoff at. The question that remains for many people is whether or not Shields can remain at that level for 3 or even all 4 of the seasons on the new contract. I think it could be safe to say that, given the low home run rates in Petco Park, we could expect to see Shields’ ERA and FIP numbers remain respectable for at least the next two years. Once he crosses the 35-years-old mark, all of those 200+ innings seasons might come back to haunt him.
Either way, looking back over the last four seasons, I think we can say that James Shields is certainly one of the best pitchers in baseball. If 30 teams have 5 spots in their rotation, then we can say that Shields, who falls somewhere in the 16-19th range, could be said to be among the top 11-13% of all pitchers who have spots in a starting rotation, and more like top 10% of all pitchers who get any starts throughout a season.