James Shields hasn't had an obstacle free career. He's suffered through some ups and downs, but in the end he appears to have emerged as a stronger pitcher than ever before. The question is, exactly what led to his career year in 2011 and can he continue to be dominant in 2012?
If the question is can James Shields be dominant again in 2012, the answer is a resounding yes. What happened in 2011 was anything but a fluke, and instead it was a culmination of all the things Shields has tweaked in his game in recent years.
There has been an unmistakable evolution in Shields' game since he arrived in the big leagues. There's been a few different incarnations of the Rays' right-hander, but the pitcher he is now is the one set up the best to be a long term front end starter in the big leagues.
"Shields is a different guy than he was in 2010," one scout explained. "The stuff hasn't changed but I think he has a way better handle on what type of pitcher he is now. He's using his fastball a lot less and he's incredibly unpredictable."
Unpredictable is the key word here. Yes, Shields has above average big league stuff, but despite his solid fastball, it's not a pitch he can afford to be overly aggressive with. That's something he's learned the hard way in the past. Instead, Shields has made his curveball much more of a weapon and he's willing to go to that or his world class plus-plus changeup in almost any situation or count.
Shields uses his straight fastball as infrequently as just about any starting pitcher in baseball. He will cut his fastball quite often, but it's his willingness to go to his secondary pitches so often that makes him who he is. As a result, we're seeing him become more of a Roy Halladay type pitcher, who is actually one of the few pitchers who uses the straight fastball less than Shields.
Not all pitchers are built to pitch this way. The general school of thought is for a pitcher to establish his fastball, throw it primarily, and mix in his secondary pitches to put hitters away. Most pitchers do not have the command or feel to use their off-speed pitches as much as Shields can.
"He's a unique guy," said another scout. "It's a way to pitch that not a lot of pitchers can pull off. But, he's got so much conviction with his changeup and curveball now, that hitters really don't know when that fastball is going to come. And, he has enough command where he's not falling behind in too many counts with his off-speed pitches."
Shields became one of the model workhorses in baseball in 2011, and his ability to be so efficient with his pitch count while using his off-speed pitches so frequently is, quite frankly, pretty remarkable.
"I think the biggest difference has been his curveball," the scout added. "He threw it a lot more last year and it's just another wrinkle for him to go with that great changeup. He adapted after a tough season and he deserves a lot of credit for that."
James Shields' way of pitching is not conventional, and that couldn't be more of a compliment. His style of getting big league hitters out has been evolving on the fly since he arrived in the big leagues. And, the pitcher we see on the field now may be the most perfect version of Shields we've seen yet. It also appears that this dominant workhorse is going to be on the scene for a very long time.