Tuesday, November 20, 2012

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The Case for James Shields
By Robert Cunningham - AngelsWin.com

Author’s Note: I originally wrote this article near the trade deadline (late July 2012) as I felt very strongly that the Angels wanted to acquire Shields for the division run. However, this event did not come to pass for, probably, the following two reasons: 1) The Rays, rightfully, felt that they were still in contention and 2) The Rays probably asked for more than we were willing to give in trade at that time. Now, that we are in the offseason, I think there is a high likelihood that Shields will be traded, to create more financial flexibility for the smaller-market Rays, and this would be a great acquisition opportunity for the Angels. The article has been updated to the present time.

Many teams are entering the offseason looking for quality starting pitchers for their respective rotations. One pitcher, James Shields of the Rays, has been the rumored target of many teams over the last year and there is a high probability he will be traded, due to his increasing salary, before the 2013 season starts and Halo fans should understand why Shields should be acquired by the Angels.

According to FanGraphs, James has an array of pitches including a four-seam fastball, two-seam fastball, cutter, slider, curveball, and change-up. Earlier in his career he predominantly used his fastball and change-up while mixing in an occasional slider or curveball.

However in the last two years Shields has increased his secondary offerings and reduced his use of the four-seam fastball which has resulted in a large increase in the number of groundballs he has generated, while simultaneously maintaining his high strikeout totals and continuing to limit walks. Dave Cameron of FanGraphs covered this interesting aspect of Shields development in an article found here.

It is a great read and, to succinctly summarize the article, it basically indicates that if James Shields can maintain a 50-55% ground ball rate, a 6-8% walk rate, and a strikeout rate between 22-24%, he would put himself at the same level of performance as Felix Hernandez (2009, 2010, and 2011), Adam Wainwright (2010), and Josh Johnson (2009).

That is some fantastic company to be in! Those three pitchers have had some monster seasons in the past few years and to be compared to them is high praise. The Rays saw flashes of that brilliance in the 2nd half of 2012 (2.81 ERA), but the 1st half (4.17 ERA) left a lot to be desired.

So why did Shields give the Rays the Jekyll and Hyde routine? The answer is three-fold as several AW.com members (rage1973, AngelsJunky, Inside Pitch, et. al.) have pointed out: Home runs, infield defense, and some unlucky hits.

James Shields has had consistent problems over his career with giving up to many home runs. In fact his career home runs per nine innings rate (HR/9) stands at 1.17. Compare this to Weaver’s HR/9 rate of 0.94 or Wilson’s HR/9 rate of 0.64 and it seems troubling, but is it? The answer is not nearly as much as you might think.

Earlier in his career (specifically 2006-2007 and 2009-2010) Shields was not nearly the groundball pitcher that he has developed into today and he gave up an inordinate amount of home runs during those years that inflated his home run rate.

Additionally Shields pitches in the American League East which, other than Tropicana Field, contains three of the Top 10 home run parks in Major League Baseball (MLB): Camden Yards (Baltimore), Fenway (Boston), and Yankee Stadium. Even Rogers Centre (Toronto) gives up more home runs than the league average and this has definitely contributed to James Shields problems during his career.

Also, in 2012, the Rays infield defense has been dismal and a groundball pitcher, like Shields, has suffered for it. Evan Longoria has been on the Disabled List (DL) and several non-regular players (Rodriguez, Rhymes, Pena, Keppinger, Johnson, et. al.) have been filling in, sometimes at positions they don’t normally play at, which has led to a higher rate of errors.

This unfamiliarity has led to missed defensive plays and mistakes that have led to additional runs scored against Shields and has raised his Batting Average Against (BAA, the batting average of hitters against Shields) to .280 which is 20 points higher than his career average and is 65 points higher than it was in 2011, his best year to date, when he had Longoria, Brignac, Zobrist, and Kotchman as his infield defensive arrangement (thanks to Inside Pitch for that information).

In fact, last year in 2011, Tampa Bay was ranked #1 in fielding percentage. This year they ranked #26! That is a huge disparity and James Shields, a groundball pitcher, has suffered because of it.

Finally this year, James has had really bad luck with Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP). Shields career average BABIP is .302 (about league average) but, in the first half of 2012, it was .337, a full 35 points higher. In the 2nd half his BAPIP was .234, a full 68 points below his career average!

This simply means that, in the first half, an inordinate amount of balls that were put into play are actually falling in for hits rather than being converted into outs. This relates to the defensive discussion, above, as many of the Rays infielders, in 2012, didn’t have the range to stop a ball from leaving the infield, especially early in the season. However, the 2nd half clearly showed the pendulum swinging to the other side as the Rays defense picked it up a bit more and it was reflected in Shields rate numbers.

The first half BABIP number also mean that Shields has had a bit of bad luck with blooper base hits and balls hit to the gaps (and over the fence). Also it could relate to mechanical adjustments, possible tipping of pitches, and other adjustments by the pitcher over the course of a season. Typically BABIP regresses to the pitchers career average over time, as it did in the 2nd half, and the expectation, moving into 2013, is that Shields BABIP should hover around his career average.

It also seems fair to say that, if the Angels acquire him, moving to Anaheim stadium will help Shields as well. First of all Angel’s stadium helps to suppress the long ball. It would seem reasonable that the stadium, combined with James newfound groundball rate over the last two years and an above average infield and outfield defense, will significantly reduce his HR/9 rate.

Additionally he will be in the AL West and that should also reduce his home run rate by being able to pitch in Oakland and Seattle (although he will have to go to Texas which will most likely negatively impact his numbers). These factors should help Shields reduce his ERA significantly, which brings us to the subject of his peripheral numbers which will help us to see his true ability as a starting pitcher.

As AngelsWin.com member AngelsJunky, pointed out, earlier in the year, here, there is a gap between Shields ERA and his Field Independent Pitching (FIP) and xFIP numbers over most of Shields career. FIP simply measures what a pitchers ERA should have looked like over a given time period assuming that the pitcher has a league average BABIP (meaning neutral defense, luck, and mechanics).

The only inputs to FIP are how many home runs, walks, hit by pitch, intentional walks, strikeouts, and innings pitched that have been accumulated by the pitcher over the given time period. A constant is added to equate FIP to the same scale that ERA is on so that it is easier to see what a player’s ERA should have looked like.

In the first half of 2012, Shields FIP was 3.89, meaning his ERA of 4.17 should have actually been closer to that number. The FIP formula emphasizes home runs giving them a greater weight so, at that time, the 3.89 number seemed reasonable considering how many home runs Shields had given up at that point, if his infield defense and luck were at least league average. As it so happens, Shields, due to his superior performance in the 2nd half, ended up with a 3.47 FIP and 3.52 ERA for the 2012 season.

But what would his ERA be if Shields only gave up home runs at the league average rate, i.e. if his HR/9 rate was at the league average?

That is what xFIP does. Instead of using the amount of home runs a pitcher has given up over a specific time period it uses the league average home run rate instead as it has been statistically proven that individual pitcher home run rates are unstable and fluctuate from year to year.

Shields xFIP, in the first half, was 3.42. This number tells us that if Shields was giving up home runs at a normal, league average rate, his ERA would be somewhere around 3.40-3.50. It would be reasonable to assume that if Shields moved out of the AL East to Anaheim, exchanged his outfield defense from the Rays to the Angels, and saw his BABIP regress towards his career average of .302 that he would experience a significant decrease in his ERA. James ended the 2012 season with a 3.24 xFIP, which was also a reflection of his superior performance combined with his high 2012 home run rate.

C.J. Wilson and Jered Weaver experienced that effect last year, too. In the first half of 2012, C.J. had an ERA of 2.89, a FIP of 3.53, and an xFIP of 4.01 while Weaver has an ERA of 2.20, a FIP of 3.33, and an xFIP of 3.95! These numbers are telling us that Wilson and Weaver are benefitting from the pitcher’s park they pitch in, the infield and outfield defense that plays behind them, and some luck. Wilson’s BABIP is .262, 19 points below his career average and Weaver’s BABIP is .233, 39 points below his career average.

Wilson ended the 2012 season with a 3.83 ERA, a 4.04 FIP, and a 4.10 xFIP. Jered Weaver ended the season with a 2.81 ERA, a 3.75 FIP, and a 4.18 xFIP! These numbers are clearly a reflection of the superior defense, park factor, and division that the Angels play in. It also is a reflection of Wilson’s and Weaver’s superior ability to mix up their repertoire of pitches and keep the hitters off balance. Pitching in Anaheim should have a similar effect on Shields.

James, pitching for the Angels, could reasonably expect his ERA to drop to somewhere around the 3.00-3.20 mark, pitching in the mostly friendly confines of the AL West. A move to Anaheim would suppress some of the home runs he gives up and our infield defense should convert more balls in play into outs, which will prevent more runners from getting on base and potentially scoring runs, thus decreasing his ERA.

Additionally, just like Weaver and Wilson, Shields appears to be mixing up his pitch selection and throwing his secondary offerings more to keep hitters off balance. This strategy has done wonders for Weaver over the last three years and it should greatly assist Shields as well.

In fact over the last six years, as described in Scott Spratt’s article for The Hardball Times, there appears to be a trend of more pitchers using their plus secondary offerings to obtain more strikeouts and suppress the number of walks and home runs allowed and Shields appears to fit this mold.

Another attractive benefit of obtaining Shields is that there appears to be a reduced risk of injury based on the types and frequency of pitches thrown. Bill Petti of FanGraphs wrote an article on pitch usage and attrition here. To summarize, pitchers who throw a variety of pitches and minimize the use of sliders and curveballs while throwing change-ups more often are, generally, less likely to experience an injury.

Over the last two years, as James has moved away from throwing his fastball, he has significantly increased the usage of his change-up, while mildly increasing the use of his slider and curveball. The last two are used less than 20%, which still limits possible attrition, while the change-up is now used at a 30% rate.

In comparison, Ervin Santana is, essentially, a two-pitch pitcher (fastball and slider) who uses his slider nearly 36% of the time. Using only two pitches and the slider at such a high rate raises the risk that Santana could experience an injury to his throwing arm. This is probably a contributing factor in Jerry Dipoto’s decision to trade him to the Royals.

If the Angels can trade for James Shields they will be getting a potential ace-level starting pitcher at a very reasonable price. James Shields has 2 more seasons of control left at $9 million, in 2013, and $12 million, in 2014.

Each of those years has a very low buyout option ($1.5 million in 2013 and $1 million in 2014) and, on the off chance that Shields gets injured and/or underperforms, the Angels can choose to part ways with him.

The length of control time also, happily, ties in with the extra cash from the new MLB-FOX television deal, next year, and it could potentially lead to an extension offer to Shields in the future if things work out as Jerry Dipoto expects (not to mention the money saved after the Wells contract expires in 2014).

In order to understand what a trade for Shields might look like, we need to understand his approximate value and we will use FanGraphs WAR as a simple, rough, baseline. Over the last six seasons, Shields has generated 23.4 WAR, which equates to almost 4 WAR per season. More specifically, over the last two years, James has had a 4.9 and 4.3 WAR in 2011 and 2012, respectively.

Assuming he has a 4.5 WAR season, followed by a 4 WAR season, we can set a baseline value of 8.5 WAR over the remaining 2 years of his contract. Using the guideline that 1 WAR equals $5 million dollars, we obtain an approximate value of $42.5 million dollars.

As mentioned above, James will receive a salary of $21 million, in total, over the remaining 2 years of his contract. This leaves a remainder, positive value of $21.5 million that an acquiring team would probably have to provide in compensation to have a chance of trading for Shields. Market scarcity will probably play a role in this value so it is likely that a team would need to approach $25 million or so in value to pique the interest of Andrew Friedman and the Rays front office.

So what do the Rays need that the Angels might have to trade for James Shields? The answer is we do have some very specific pieces that the Rays want but Jerry Dipoto is probably unwilling to part with most of them to make this deal happen.

Specifically the Rays have needs at first base, second base, center field, catcher, and their bullpen. The Angels, if they are willing to part with them, have Kendrys Morales, Mark Trumbo, Howie Kendrick, Peter Bourjos, Hank Conger, and Jordan Walden as potential trade chips. Clearly some of these players have more trade value than the others but does any combination of them make sense?

Morales, in his first season back from his leg injury, posted a 1.8 WAR, which gives him an approximate surplus value of about $3.5 million. Trumbo, with 4 years of club control remaining, posted a 2.4 WAR, in 2012, giving him an estimated, assuming he continues to post an equivalent WAR, surplus value of $30 million.

Continuing in the same vein, we can assign rough surplus values of $15 million to Kendrick (over 3 years), $60 million to Bourjos (elite defensive CF over the next 4 years), $15 million to Conger (over 4 years), and $12 million to Walden (over 4 years). Additionally there are some prospects in our system that could be appealing such as Randall Grichuk, Kaleb Cowart, Matt Shoemaker, Cameron Bedrosian, Taylor Lindsey, Luis Jimenez, Jeremy Moore, Travis Witherspoon, et. al.

The reality is that the Rays, under Friedman, will do their best to extract the most value for Shields and try to fill multiple holes in their big league club. Possible trade scenarios that seem balanced on paper include:
  • James Shields for Hank Conger and Jordan Walden
  • James Shields, Ben Zobrist, and Jake McGee for Howie Kendrick, Hank Conger, Jordan Walden, and Peter Bourjos
  • James Shields and Jake McGee for Mark Trumbo, Jordan Walden, and Matt Shoemaker
  • James Shields for Kendrys Morales and Hank Conger
  • James Shields and Evan Longoria for Mark Trumbo, Peter Bourjos, Alberto Callaspo, Jordan Walden, and Luis Jimenez
Clearly it would be virtually impossible for anyone to pry Longoria (~$90 million in value) away from the Rays, especially considering the fact that the Rays are capable of contending for their division in the near future. The same is probably true of Zobrist (~$60 million in value) as well.

On the Angels side, Dipoto has stated that Bourjos and Trumbo will be our center and right fielders in 2013, so it seems that those two are out of the equation.

The Angels best chance of acquiring James Shields probably resides in the first or fourth trades, listed, with the Shields for Conger and Walden trade being one that would give the Rays the most controllable, long-term players for their MLB roster. If the Angels threw in a couple of additional prospects they might be able to add McGee into the deal but it would be a bit of a stretch.

Morales doesn’t have any long-term value for the Rays but they might like the idea of Kendrys recapturing some of his form in 2013 and then having the possible opportunity to flip him mid-season or make him a qualifying offer at the end of next season. I don’t think it is a big leap of faith to think that Kendrys could hit well next year and the Rays front office might think the same.

It seems that the Angels do have some pieces that could be moved for Shields but everything depends upon Dipoto’s ability to convince Friedman that there is good value in any potential trade. Although Hank Conger could easily be the backup catcher to Iannetta, the Angels organization hasn’t displayed a lot of visible support for his candidacy and another backup catcher could probably be acquired in free agency or trade, making Hank a trade chip.

Jordan Walden has a great arm but there have been worries about his command and control, including his jump-step. In 2012, he was relegated to a 7th and 8th inning role and a team like the Rays might look at Walden as a relief pitcher they could “fix” a la Fernando Rodney. I think if the Angels could replace Walden with a left-handed reliever such as Jake McGee or a free agent like J.P. Howell they might seriously consider flipping him.

In the next 2-3 weeks, we will probably see resolution on whether or not the Angels sign Zack Greinke. If Jerry Dipoto can’t consummate that deal then look to him to aggressively pursue the acquisition of Shields to help stabilize our rotation. In fact, even if we do sign Greinke, it wouldn’t surprise me if Dipoto still pursues this trade opportunity no matter what happens. A rotation of Weaver, Greinke, Shields, Wilson, and Richards/Williams would be very strong.

As Cameron’s article indicated, James Shields has the potential of becoming an elite starter with his rare combination of strikeout ability, groundball inducement, and excellent walk suppression. Over the last two years Shields has changed his approach to pitching and his use of his secondary offerings, resulting in significantly improved pitching performance.

Clearly James Shields is a different pitcher over the last two years and if the Angels were to acquire him, he should prove to be another solid move by Jerry Dipoto and the Angel’s front office. It will, hopefully, allow Shields to continue to develop into the pitcher he is capable of becoming: a staff ace.
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