So yeah. We already faced this guy. Back when the offense still worked. But really, it wasn't an especially typical start from Shields. His command was straight up not there and he was lucky to give up just 5 runs in his 6 innings pitched. As it turned out, woulda been nice to get, say, 3 more. But who's counting, right?
It's been a trying April. Let's just get through this.
Shields is primarily a fastball-change right hander, but he's got a number of decent pitches he mixes in to keep hitters off balance. Fangraphs claims he throws a cutter, but I didn't see any in his start against us. Then I watched his start against the Twins last Thursday and lo there it was. I'm guessing its absence was in part dictated by lack of need (Adam Dunn was out) and in part lack of feel (the slider was also mostly absent).
The pitch I saw the most outside the fastball-change combo in the two starts I watched was his curveball. Like a lot of the curves discussed so far this year, it's an early-count pitch for Shields. He likes to steal strikes with it against hitters likely to be sitting fastball before he gets too far ahead in the count. It's not a great pitch, but he's confident enough in it to throw it multiple times per at bat if need be. A batter that was looking for it could hit it a ways. See Paulie's third inning single off the wall off the third of three consecutive curves. He probably wasn't looking for it, but he'd seen it enough (and the location sucked) that he was able to launch it anyway. A bit warmer and that's a 2-run bomb.
But you wouldn't be looking for it unless he's stuck throwing it; for his career, he's thrown it every 10 pitches or so. Shields usually has too many pitches working for that to be a great strategy. If you've already seen the curve, he's got another breaking ball or two. If you want to call the slider and cutter two different pitches, fine. It's tough to pick them out just watching. If it's up and in to lefties, call it a cutter. Low and away to righties, call it a slider. Pitch f/x says they move somewhat differently. I guess I'll defer to the computers with the cameras.*
Against the lefty-heavy Twins lineup, the cutter featured prominently. I'd guess we'll see it at least against Dunn and possibly also Pierre, since busting him in is a good way to go. When he uses the slider against righties, it's similar to the curve: early count, get strikes. Neither are strikeout pitches, though both can get groundballs when his command is good.
Ultimately, Shields lives and dies on his fastball-change combo. Worst case scenario, he's picked up an early strike on a breaking ball and he comes back with a fastball on the black. At this point, you are in dire dire PS dire straits. If he gets to 0-2/1-2, you can expect to see a change-up half the time, no matter what side of the plate you're hitting from. And a quarter of the time, you'll swing and miss. As Hawk will repeat ad nauseam, it's a fantastic pitch.
Obviously, when his command is good, he's tough to hit. He mixes it up a lot and if he gets up early you're stuck dealing with maybe the best change-up in the game. But even in this scenario, he does have a weakness. His fastball is simply not that great. He sits 91-92 mph with okay movement, so he's very reliant on command. Normally, he's good on that. But even then he's still got a weakness.
That being: he doesn't seem to be able to locate his change-up away to righties from what I saw. That means he has to set it up with the fastball down and in. That's a very hittable pitch and it's one he makes with some regularity. See Gordon Beckham's first inning bomb. That thing went out in a hurry.
Down-and-in is a pretty bad location for most pitches, change-up included. The result: problems with the long ball. And there's not much he can do about it. He doesn't really have a consistent way to get outs without the change, so at some point he's going to be working down-and-in to righties. Against lefties, his fastball is just so mediocre that he's gonna give up bombs if he throws it enough. He adds to that as he seems to miss over the plate. He doesn't nibble much and he really puts a premium on avoiding walks. I think that's lead to giving up more HR than he might otherwise.
So, let's talk strategy. He really likes to save his change for once he gets ahead. That means you can avoid his best pitch by going after something early in the count. That may not be a fastball, but it's not likely to be that tough to handle. If it's away, it could be a breaker or a fastball. If it's in, it's probably heat. That's the one to turn on. If his command isn't there, batters can get very selective since eventually they'll get a heater in a prime locale. But if he's feeling it and you're behind in the count, good luck. At that point, Shields is likely to move inside to the RHB, so righties might as well take a big cut with a pull swing and hope to hit it out.
*It's just good policy to be polite to the forebears of sentient death machines.