Saturday night would've been sad enough if James Shields were the only thing about it.
Shields melted for the third time in as many starts with the White Sox, and it's special in its brutality. Roll them with the disaster start that capped his Padres career, and that leaves him without a true historical precedent.
Here are Shields' game scores from his last four starts:
According to Baseball-Reference.com's Play Index, there's only one other starter since 1913 -- as far back as Play Index tracks -- who has posted a game score of 20 or lower in four consecutive starts. You have to go back to 1930 (and 1930 conditions) to find Ray Benge, who went 4-18-18-18 in July.
Of course, he's not a good parallel for Shields because starters absorbed more damage in those days. He made three of those starts in a seven-day period. He pitched eight innings in two of them. One was a complete game. Shields has only reached the halfway mark of one of his last four games, so even Benge can't bail him out.
If you discount Shields' San Diego finale and limit it to single-franchise work, he has plenty of company, including a contemporary. The last pitcher to flop for a new team this hard was Chien-Ming Wang, who went 12-7-7 in his first three starts with the Washington Nationals in 2011.
The good news? It can be worse.
The bad news? Wang didn't pitch at all the year before due to season-ending shoulder surgery in 2009, and it took him five seasons of toil before finding another steady MLB job, which is in the Royals bullpen this year. The list of three-disaster cases is littered with guys who were pitching during offensive explosions, pitching hurt, or were just about done.
Offense remains suppressed across the league, so we can eliminate the the first factor with Shields. Nobody is using health as an excuse, so we can cross off that one for now.
The last idea remains in play, especially since Shields came to the Sox with a velocity problem. It can't be ruled out, not with the Sox severely lacking credibility on the pro scouting side.
After Shields' previous start, I wrote that it "felt like a death knell for the organization's Way of Doing Things" before an improbable comeback got him off the hook.
Without a rally, this one is just a straight-up harbinger.
Did you see what Jeff Samardzija is doing with the Giants this year? He's 8-4 with a 3.14 ERA and averaging 6⅔ innings over his 14 starts. Sure, it's the National League, pitcher-friendly park, pitcher-friendly-park division, etc., but he's also pitching differently, according to Friend of the Podcast Eno Sarris:
One problem might have been location. The Giants righty remembered a start in which he had been breezing along: "I had been going through the lineup, living away," he said of throwing his stuff to the outside part of the plate. "I kept throwing that slider and sinker away. Got through the lineup twice, one or two hits in five innings, and then the sixth inning came. And they all just started going boom, to the opposite field -- because I never went in."
He learned his lesson. Last year, no team threw fewer fastballs on the inside part of the plate than the White Sox. But this year, no starting pitcher has thrown more cut fastballs in on lefties than Samardzija. You can see from the ESPN Stats & Info heat maps below that he's painting the inside part of the plate better against righties this year as well.
This made me laugh, because Steve_p asked why Samardzija stopped pitching inside .... in early May.
Samardzija is resolving some other variables from last season, too. He's still leaning heavily on the cutter, so that switch alone didn't lead to his ruin. But it doesn't exonerate Don Cooper, either, because the mechanical solution Samardzija said he identified during his last days in a Sox uniform seems to have carried over in San Francisco.
According to the PITCHf/x numbers on FanGraphs, Samardzija has added a half-inch to an inch of drop on both his four-seamer and two-seamer and more than an inch of drop on his splitter and cutter. That has helped him get more grounders, and it's further evidence of those improved mechanics.
The Samardzija trade never made much sense in terms of timing, as the Sox were at least a year away from seeing results from their farm system and Samardzija was determined to reach free agency. It made sense in terms of organizational strengths, because the Sox had a good track record with helping pitchers harness live stuff.
Samardzija's flop was a blemish, but one that could be written off as a bad fit, whether between Samardzija and Cooper and/or a free-agent-to-be and a team-that-isn't-yet. Mat Latos also failed to inspire confidence in the Sox' pitching ops, but if you treat it as a total flier and attach Miguel Gonzalez to him, the Sox ended up finding a back-end starter for under $4 million.
There's no way to mask the stink from the Shields trade, because there were warning signs in San Diego, and the Sox committed up to $27 million for the privilege of seeing them up close. As long as it's not an injury or pitch-tipping (Dioner Navarro says he doesn't see anything), then it cripples the one area the Sox had the benefit of the doubt. If the Sox can't make pitchers better -- or at least stop them from getting worse than they've ever been -- what do they have?
Not much, because they continue to see discouraging results from position players.
While Shields made national headlines by hanging his bullpen out to dry with a third straight start, he actually lived up to his surname for Todd Frazier. If the Sox lost, say, 4-2, the lede might've been Frazier's night. He went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts, which sank his batting average to .198.
The sub-Mendoza line for a key White Sox addition is familiar. So is the sight of a veteran showing uncharacteristic levels of frustration. This recurring subplot is why the "chatty guy from New Jersey" storyline did nothing for me.
I'm sure Todd Frazier's got a nice personality, but Adam LaRoche was supposed to provide leadership, so let's focus on production first.— Phenomenal Source (@SouthSideSox) December 16, 2015
Unlike those who came before -- Alex Rios, Adam Dunn, Jeff Keppinger, LaRoche, et al -- Frazier didn't forget how to play baseball immediately upon joining the franchise. He actually bought himself quite a bit of goodwill after a month and a half.
The last 21 games have undone a lot of it, though. He's hitless in his last 22 at-bats. Going back further, he's 8-for-78 with 29 strikeouts over his last 21 games, and outages like these aren't unprecedented for him. He had a malaise over the second half with the Reds, which gives him an unimpressive line of .217/.282/.420 over his last 365 days.
There were warning signs before the slump, too. At the end of the season's first quarter, some here objected to me categorizing Abreu as "fine" and Frazier as "probably fine" even though the latter was outperforming the former. Frazier's hit tool was the reason. His average sat in the low .200s for much of that time because he was among the league leaders in pop-ups, and if he couldn't tame that when the strikeouts flared up, there were a whole lot of useless at-bats in store. This slump is a manifestation of those fears.
(Conversely, Abreu has a 1.043 OPS in June. He still needs another month of this to cover for his earlier slumping, but I'll give his bat-to-ball ability way more rope than usual.)
Even with the slump, Frazier is still a significant upgrade over what the Sox had at third. His current trajectory, though, makes it far less of a given by the end of the season. It's not just Frazier's history of brownouts combined with the Sox' history of black holes -- it's his defense, too.
[Adam] Eaton has barely slowed his pace, saving the team seven more runs since April 28. However, Frazier and [Melky] Cabrera have combined for -16 DRS after their start of 5 DRS. For Frazier, this decline is a major surprise. He has been a positive contributor at third base in each of the first five years of his career but now stands at -5 DRS for the season thus far.
After John Dewan wrote that, I started taking more notice of plays like these:
The Sox could afford Frazier running hot and cold, because he seemed to be streakier than most. The Sox couldn't afford him taking his offensive woes into the field. That's why I ranked him the most essential White Sox of 2016. The blurb was brief:
There's no particular reason why this shouldn't work, but man, if it doesn't ...
I trailed off because it's a very large can of worms, and its one we're starting to see people pry open in our discussions. The consequences of big-name failures at a time like this are simply staggering, and if the play of the last several weeks holds, we will have a very, very long season to explore them.