Monday, February 16, 2015

How Much of a Bargain is James Shields?

By Jeff Kallman

James Shields needed just slightly longer to find new employment than Max Scherzer needed. At four years believed in the $75 million total range, the Padres might look to have a bargain on the surface. Look a little deeper, however, and it's just about what Shields really is worth as compared to what some thought he saw himself as worth.

In essence, Shields gets a $5 million a year raise over the $13.5 million he made with the Royals last season. They looked at him as the ace who could lead them back to a Promised Land they hadn't seen since the Reagan Administration. He didn't, quite, and the Royals probably couldn't afford to keep him if he was really seeking $100 million on a multi-year deal.

Which, apparently, he was. His agent Page Odle is said to have been shooting for a six-year/$120 million-or-thereabout package for the big right-hander ... when he wasn't trying for $125 and five years, that is. Something like that. Basically, Scherzer/Jon Lester money.

Considering the dollars compared to the pitcher's reality — Big Game James never existed, but New Old Reliable probably does — any team agreeing to either of Odle's suggested targets would have had Shields until he'd be two years older than either Scherzer or Lester will be at the end of their big deals. Shields might have gotten a little more money if he'd jumped earlier on slightly higher season-by-season dollars said to have gone his way, but then we might be talking about a hosing instead of an actual or alleged bargain.

What are the Padres getting for the coming four years? Shields's most obvious ability is the innings he dines upon. Starting in 2007 he's been in the top ten in innings pitched seven times and led the league in 2013, his first year in Kansas City. What have his teams gotten for that much workhorse?

* Generally, he's the same pitcher without his defenses as he is with them. His fielding-independent pitching lifetime (3.77) is a sliver above his 3.72 ERA. This could prove problematic for the Padres, who still have defensive holes despite the arguable best pitcher's park in baseball. And Shields losing the hop on his once-formidable changeup while going too often to a cutter that isn't quite good enough to use that often should be a big concern entering spring training.

* He's had one season in which his ERA fell below 3.00, his 2.82 in 2011 coming in 0.60 below his fielding-independent pitching, an indication that in 2011 Shields really put his defense to work on his behalf despite his 3-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio that season. (It was the same season in which he led the American League with four shutouts.)

* He's been hittable throughout his career — with a lifetime 8.8 hits per nine rate; his 2014 was of a piece with it, which probably had the attention of the more advanced thinkers on the Giants entering the World Series — even if he has found ways to win. (Jon Lester, who splashed big signing with the Cubs before 2014's end, has a comparable hits-per-nine rate, but Lester has pitched mostly in home parks far less advantageous to pitchers.)

* Shields's postseason jacket especially erases his reputation as Big Game James. In four lifetime postseasons and nine postseason series his ERA is 5.46; his walks/hits per inning pitched (WHIP) rate is 1.53; his hits per nine is 11.9. Only once in any postseason did he post a shutout performance, beating the Phillies with five and two thirds of shutout ball in Game 2 of the 2008 World Series, and he came out for Dan Wheeler after surrendering back to back singles following two inning-opening outs. (It was the Rays' only win in the set.) It was the best postseason performance of his career.

* Shields typically pitches better in the second half of a season than the first, but in last October's postseason he didn't account for himself very well. Let's run it down once again:

AL wild card game: Shields faced Lester, surrendered an early 2-run homer to Brandon Moss, then held fort until he opened the Oakland sixth with back-to-back baserunners (leadoff single, walk) before he was lifted for Yordano Ventura. Ventura would look impressive soon enough during the Royals' postseason run, but pressed into sudden duty at the outset he surrendered a 3-run homer to Moss to open a 5-run Oakland inning, inadvertently setting the table for the surrealistic meals that ended in the Royals' staggering win.

AL division series: Shields started Game 3 against the Angels' C.J. Wilson. Perhaps exhausted from their staggering regular-season run (the Angels upended the faltering A's midsummer and ran away with the division and the league while they were at it despite injury issues compromising their rotation), the Angels could have faced a scrubwoman with an arthritic shoulder and still been swept. MVP Mike Trout opened the proceedings with a solo bomb on 1-0 in the first, but the Royals battered Wilson in the bottom of the inning with Alex Gordon's 3-run double. From there it was no contest, despite Albert Pujols's leadoff blast off Shields in the fourth.

By the time Shields's assignment ended after six, the Royals had a fat 7-2 lead and could serve balls up to the plate on tees, though Nori Aoki poking home the Royals' eighth run with a single through the infield gap wasn't entirely unwelcome. It didn't exactly auger well that Shields pitched better with a fat lead than he had when the wild card game was closer.

League Championship Series: Game 1 — Shields opened against the Orioles' Chris Tillman. The Royals staked him to an early 4-0 lead, but Adam Jones singled home a run in the third, and the Orioles brought themselves to within a run off Shields in the fifth with an RBI double and a two-run single and his night was over. The Orioles eventually tied things at five and it took a 10th inning and a pair of bombs to put the Royals up for keeps, en route a second straight series sweep and a more staggering eight straight postseason game wins.

World Series: Game 1 — Shields v. Madison Bumgarner. The Giants made sure their man didn't have to break a sweat, jumping Shields for three first-inning runs thanks to Pablo Sandoval's RBI double (which Buster Posey tried and failed to make two, getting nailed at the plate on a nifty series of relay throws) and, immediately following, Hunter Pence's full-count flog over the right center field fence. Shields surrendered another run in the fourth on an RBI single following a wild pitch and his night was over. The Royals lost the game 7-1.

Game 5 — Shields had a rematch with Bumgarner with the Series tied at two games each. He gave a far better account of himself this time around. He worked with a two-run deficit and generally kept the Royals close despite a few unexpected defensive pores, but he was going on a night Bumgarner could have thrown grapefruits and the Royals couldn't hit him with trees.

That was Shields's best performance in that postseason and it went for naught. The Series returned to Kansas City — the Royals smashed the Giants in Game Six (Ventura, Jason Frasor, and Tim Collins combined for the 10-0 shutout) but ran into Bumgarner out of the bullpen in Game Seven — and Shields wasn't likely to appear again, even out of the bullpen.

Shields has been a good pitcher in his career and has approached greatness from time to time, and he has a decent chance of doing likewise for the life of his Padres deal. Approaching 33, and assuming all his previous time, work, and pitches don't take a serious toll yet, Shields — who's never suffered anything worse than a hamstring cramp in his major league career — will probably give the Padres their money's worth as just what he happens to be.

It isn't Big Game James, alas. If it was he'd have gotten closer to and beyond a nine-figure deal without raised eyebrows and perhaps a lot sooner than he finally did sign. "All of it sets up not just a fascinating season with the new-look Padres," writes Yahoo! Sports's Jeff Passan, "[but i]t also flashes us forward to November, when free agency kicks off and the pitchers survey the market. There will be alpha dogs and those who think they're alpha dogs, and James Shields showed the danger in confusing the latter with the former."

Shields has a deserved reputation as a clubhouse motivator, and it isn't unlikely that he gave the Padres a hometown discount (he hails from southern California), but the Padres aren't getting a guaranteed must-win lock.

Shields was worth 3.3 WAR to the Royals last year and might be worth that to the Padres this year and for most of his new deal. But if the Padres — whose offseason makeover has been enough to put them in the wild card discussion at best given they share a division with the Dodgers and the Giants — are looking for Big Game James, Shields himself may be looking harder. Big Game James doesn't live here anymore, if he ever really did.

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