MLB: Kansas City Royals-Workout

One of the most derided concepts in recent “fanalysts” thinking has to be leadership. It is nigh impossible to count, so rather than throw the baby out with the bathwater, it’s ignored by value calculations. That leadership tends to be seen as a moving target — only as valuable as your win/loss record — makes matters worse.

James Shields was one of the few remaining Devil Rays when the rebranded Tampa Bay Rays traded him to Kansas City in December 2012. Having survived the 100-loss AL East furnace, Shields went on to see the brighter days of AL pennants and perennial playoff contention. Brought to Kansas City to drag a young team to the next stage of their rebuild process, the right-hander did his very best.

Not only did he throw his requisite 200+ innings, but he helped mentor a young staff with lessons that have the potential to pay dividends beyond 2013.

More than helping his own teammates, Shields reached out to a young pitcher at a crossroads. This Washington Post story explains how Stephen Strasburg, the Nationals ace, came off a frustrating 2013 knowing he needed to make adjustments. Luckily, the very same adaptive philosophy guides the Royals Opening Day starter, as I learned when we spoke towards the end of the 2013 season.

Shields helped the notorious tinkerer Strasburg realize that while efficiency during his work in between starts is key, it’s the efficiency within games that matters most.

“You want to attack the strike zone and be known as a strike thrower. You’re going to give up your hits but you can minimize the damage but you can go as deep into the game as you can, saving the bullpen, you’re going to good.”

A stark contrast from Strasburg, who told the WaPo that his goal every time out was simple: “to throw a no-hitter.”

Shields expressed an attitude that is a little more wizened, a little less at odds with the whims of the baseball gods.

I don’t care about strikeouts. I care about ground balls and outs. I care about minimizing my pitches every inning. The quicker you get your offense back on the field, the better.

James Shields might have one of the best change ups in the game but his stuff can’t match up with Stephen Strasburg, one of the hardest throwers in baseball. But Shields is known as a bulldog, a guy whose competitive drive is the first thing mentioned in any conversation about the right-handed workhorse.

Speaking with his teammates and coaches, his desire to improve and “staff ace” status highlight their effusive praise. Royals’ pitching coach Dave Eiland worked with James Shields as an advisor in 2010 and now has him again in Kansas City. He speaks highly of the former Rays capacity for improvement and ability to make adjustments, something Shields, like Stephen Strasburg, learned from another well-decorated right-hander: Roy Halladay.

When I was a rookie, one of the guys I really loved watching was Roy Halladay. The way he worked and attacked the strike zone – not afraid to throw different pitches in different counts – and really just trusting his stuff. I like his demeanor out there – he wants the rock and he wants to be out there until the end of the game. The way he approaches every game, he didn’t look like a guy who cared about strike outs or anything.

When I first got called up 2006 he was throwing 95-96 and all sinkers, then he threw all cutters the next year. Then he was throwing sinkers and cutters with his curveball. You have to keep the league guessing. Eventually they’re going to catch up to you so you have to keep them on your toes. He’s the epitome of that and I loved watching him.

Shields calls the constant state of adjustment and re-adjustment a “chess match”, something he relishes. Though his change up gets most of the attention, it’s his ability to throw any pitch in any count that gives him an edge. Not only is his change a good swing and miss weapon, but only five starters threw their change up more when behind 2-0 in the count. He ranks near the top over the last three years for change up use in hitters’ counts.

The way Shields’ uses his pitches very indicative of a man seeking outs, not just Ks. The key for any pitcher trying to turn the lineup over that third time is staying out of predictable patterns, which Shields cites as a point of pride.

james shields pitch usage

James Shields might not spawn the legion of admirers currently following The Halladay Way but he is a model of consistency, improvement, and effectiveness. If he knows what’s good for him, young Royals fireballer Yordano Ventura won’t stray too far from the hip of his rotation mate as he experiences the ups and downs of his first year in the show. There are valuable lessons he can learn from a guy who seems pretty eager to share.