Lee, Shields continue to clean up
September, 6, 2011
By David Schoenfield | ESPN.com
Getty ImagesThe adjustments pitchers James Shields and Cliff Lee have made are paying off.Our Stats & Info blog catalogs some of the amazing achievements this season by Cliff Lee, who threw his sixth shutout in Monday's victory: it's the most shutouts by a Phillies pitcher since Steve Carlton also threw six in 1982; he's only the fifth NL left-hander in 50 years to record at least six shutouts and 200 strikeouts; with a streak of 29 2/3 scoreless innings, he's the first pitcher to have two streaks that long in one season since Don Sutton in 1972.
Meanwhile, Tampa Bay's James Shields tossed another complete game -- his 11th, the most in the majors since Randy Johnson threw 12 in 1999. The only other pitcher since 2000 with at least 10 complete games and 200 strikeouts was CC Sabathia, during his 2007 seasons with the Indians and Brewers, and the last AL pitcher with at least 10 complete games and 200 strikeouts was Johnson in 1993 with the Mariners.
Shields hadn't tossed a complete game before this season since 2008 and has improved to 14-10 with a 2.77 ERA, a big improvement from his 5.18 ERA of 2010, a season in which he led the AL in hits, earned runs and home runs allowed. There is a faction of stat analysts who argue that Shields is the same pitcher as last year -- that he was merely unlucky last year and lucky this year. Indeed, his strikeout-to-walk ratio is almost identical to a year ago: 3.80 in 2011 compared to 2010's 3.80. That means his xFIP -- "expected fielding independent pitching where home runs are calculated as 10.5 percent of fly balls induced" -- is similar to last year: 3.10 in 2011, 3.55 in 2010. Basically, since he allowed a .341 average on balls in play last year, he was "unlucky." His .261 average on balls in play this year means he's been "lucky." Same thing with his decrease in home run rate, from 1.5 per nine innings to 0.9.
Except, of course, Shields isn't the same pitcher as 2010. He got criticized last year for throwing too many hittable fastballs. So this year he's throwing far fewer fastballs (about 9-10 percent fewer), more curveballs and a few more changeups. While his groundball rate is up, this new approach is most drastically seen in the results when batters put the first pitch in play: in 2010, they hit .438 with 11 home runs in 121 at-bats; in 2011, they're hitting .257 with five home runs in 113 at-bats. With two strikes, the varied approach has also made him more dominant: in 2010, batters hit .199 with 13 homers in 402 at-bats; in 2011, they're hitting .134 with six homers in 388 at-bats.
Pitchers change and adapt. Maybe Shields was a little unlucky last year. But he's a far better pitcher in 2011, and the complete games are just one component of that.
As for Lee, I feel he's also made some adjustments. Last year, he basically made the decision to never walk anybody. He issued only 18 walks in 28 starts. This year, he's walked more batters -- his walk rate has increased from 0.8 to 1.8 per nine innings -- but the new approach has resulted in more strikeouts and more dominating performances. He's now had 11 starts of at least seven innings where he isn't allowed a run. Since 1980, only two pitchers can match that: Dwight Gooden and John Tudor, both in 1985.
Lee has re-entered the crowded NL Cy Young picture, a group that includes teammates Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels, Clayton Kershaw and Ian Kennedy. Remarkably, Halladay hasn't thrown one shutout, and only Kershaw has thrown as many as two. In what should be a tight vote, those six shutouts could put Lee over the top.