Can Shields return to 'Big Game' form?

With nearly 1,000 career innings on his resume, 28-year-old James Shields is the elder statesman and most experienced pitcher in the Tampa Bay Rays' starting rotation. He’s already the franchise leader in innings pitched, and is tied with Scott Kazmir for the most wins in Rays' history. Shields started (and won) the first postseason game in Rays history, and notched their only win in the 2008 World Series.


So, based on his franchise pedigree and proven performance in the postseason, you would figure Shields to be a lock for a spot in the Rays’ playoff rotation this year, right? Not so fast …

Shields started this season going 5-2 with a 2.99 ERA in his first 10 starts. His command of the strike zone was most impressive -- averaging more than 10 strikeouts and less than two walks per nine innings. But in his last 17 starts -- dating back to May 30 when the Chicago White Sox tagged him for seven runs -- Shields has posted an ERA over six and opponents have hit nearly .300.

James Shields This Season
2-Strike Count on Batter

During the first two months, Shields was absolutely brilliant when getting to two strikes. In those 10 starts, he had a two-strike count on a hitter 133 times, and 71 of them struck out. But over his last 17 starts, his ability to finish off batters with a "K" has fallen and he's become much more hittable in two-strike counts (see chart).

Early in the season Shields had issues when pitching with the bases empty, allowing nearly 30 percent of the batters he faced to reach base. However, he was able to limit the damage by holding opponents to a .228 batting average and just seven extra-base hits in 101 at-bats with runners on base. It's been a different story in his last 17 starts though, as he has been hit much harder compared to his first 10 starts (see chart). In fact, according to Inside Edge, 30 percent of his at-bats with runners on base since May 30 have ended in "well-hit" balls into play. (Well-hit balls are determined by video scouting from Inside Edge.)

James Shields This Season
With Runners on Base

Shields has also been vulnerable since against right-handed batters. In his first 10 starts, right-handed batters hit just .243 with a slugging percentage of .409. In fact, in the three starts prior to that May 30 game against the White Sox, Shields allowed just seven hits in 43 at-bats (.163) to right-handed hitters. But the White Sox righties crushed Shields, pounding out five hits (including two home runs) in 11 at-bats. Since then, righties are hitting .335 against Shields with an OPS of .990.

Shields’ 4.76 ERA is currently the highest in Tampa Bay's rotation. He has a career-high 11 wild pitches and has allowed 29 home runs, equaling his career high. It’s clear that he has not performed over the last three months like the "Big Games James" in the past, but don't count him out yet. The 28-year-old has shown signs of breaking out of his slump recently, having won his last two starts, allowing just three runs in 13 innings against the Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Angels.

Sunday's matchup with the Boston Red Sox is a crucial game for the Rays as they try to hold off Boston and keep pace with the New York Yankees in the American League East. But it could also be the most pivotal and important start of the season for Shields as he tries to prove that he deserves to be pitching in meaningful games come October.