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Ruminations on coping with James Shields starts

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It’s almost better to pretend the White Sox are trying to make this season this painful

Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

On one hand, it’s really tough to watch James Shields. This needs no explanation for those watching, but if you happen to be rubbernecking from another blog, he has a 7.62 ERA and he leads the staff in home runs allowed despite showing up in June. He simply takes all the air out of the park.

On the other hand, it’s surprisingly easy for me to watch James Shields, because I’ve conditioned myself to not feel things the nights he starts.

Going through Baseball-Reference.com to find the last pitcher who inspired the same amount of morbid curiosity, I remembered Philip Humber after his perfect game in 2012. It might be the most staggering non-injury-related decline I can remember, especially because it seemed so cursed. He went from one of baseball’s feel-good stories to a cruel, sadistic Twilight Zone episode. It happened practically overnight, and nothing reversed the slide -- not DL trips, not a move to the bullpen, not a change of scenery, not a trip to the minors, not even a jaunt to Asia.

The post-perfecto version of Humber wasn’t the worst pitcher I’ve seen — the worse ones are one and done -- but he set the standard for cursed, tortured pitching.

And Shields is blowing it away. Here’s how they compare after removing Humber’s best two starts of the season.

Pitcher W-L ERA G/GS IP H R ER HR BB K OPS
Shields 3-8 7.62 14/14 69.2 94 61 59 20 33 34 1.004
Humber 4-5 7.39 24/14 87.2 107 73 72 23 41 69 .913

(Remove Shields' best two starts, and he has a 9.66 ERA.)

One key difference not reflected in those numbers: We were able to familiarize ourselves with Humber before his career collapsed. He was an unlikely success story in 2011, compelling Ozzie Guillen to expand the rotation to six. Then he took it to new heights by throwing a 96-pitch perfect game in Seattle, after which his story was explored by outlets and writers who seldom follow the Sox. His rise gave us a ton of reasons to feel great for him, which then made it possible to feel awful for him when it all evaporated.

By comparison, Shields’ tenure lacks the humanity of Humber’s fall. Shields subverted expectations well before he could have created a connection, which is an efficient way of eliminating empathy.

At this point, James Shields, White Sox pitcher comes off as more of a concept than a person, and watching his start against Oakland brought to mind Andy Kaufman. I’m only familiar with Kaufman well after the fact, so when I’d see specials about him shocking and enraging crowds in various (and sometimes literal) arenas, I’d wonder how those in the audience failed to recognize they were being played. It seemed so over-the-top to be taken as anything but a farce. Of course, I knew that going in.

After Yonder Alonso of all people took Shields deep, I had the same thought — maybe this is a put-on. The rubes will be angry and disgusted, but there are smart people off to the side of the stage laughing and admiring. All the elements are there. Shields introduced himself as the worst pitcher in MLB history, and after teasing fans with a comically unsustainable stretch of success to lure them into trade deadline fantasies, he reverted to that form once the Sox were stuck with him.

Independent of his performance, he came from the sadder White Sox. He’s wearing a knowing smirk in his photo. Even his name is ironic.

Twenty years from now, Sox fans will revisit these posts and say, "Can you believe people fell for it? Any idiot could tell he was trolling them." And when you look at his home run rate for White Sox pitchers who threw at least 40 innings in a season, and nobody is even close, well ...

  1. James Shields, 2.58 home runs per nine innings in 2016
  2. Felix Diaz, 2.37 over 49.1 IP in 2004
  3. Jason Grilli, 2.20 over 45 IP in 2004
  4. Carlos Castillo, 2.20 over 41 IP, 1999
  5. Gavin Floyd, 2.19 over 70 IP, 2007

I don’t think this is an act, but I want to put it out there just in case it makes me look smarter than the rest of you down the road. I mean, it’s more than just Shields, anyway. When the Sox make national headlines for an absurd incident that has no real precedent, get off to the league’s best start, blow it with some of the league’s worst play, destroy rookies at harrowing rate, make more national headlines for an absurd incident that has no real precedent, and still end up in the same damn position they always find themselves ...

... shouldn’t we kinda be impressed? But maybe that’s just me, somebody who goes to great lengths to find alternatives to getting upset over events that he can’t control.

In the end, it all reminds me of the John Mulaney joke about being a terrible driver, and other motorists glancing over after a bad move "expecting to see a 100-year-old blind dog who’s texting while driving and drinking a smoothie. Instead, they see a 28-year-old healthy man trying his best."

The unanswered question: Which one would be preferable?