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The obligations to James Shields are here to stay

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First two starts in August show why teams probably weren't all that interested in trading for him in July

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

It’s almost as James Shields was designed to maximize the embarrassment of the Chicago White Sox front office.

After giving up four homers over four outs to the Baltimore Orioles on Sunday, his numbers do the heavy lifting. There are numerous shocking ways to characterize them fairly, considering he has a 6.68 ERA. Two of my favorites:

Sabermetrically oriented: When you see a pitcher with a 6.68 ERA, it’s fair to assume he’s getting all the bad breaks on top of his bad pitching. Take Andre Rienzo, who posted a 6.82 ERA for the White Sox in 2014 over 18 games (11 starts). He had a 5.73 FIP, which suggests that events conspired against him to a degree he didn’t really need.

Let’s look at another contemporary disappointment. Shelby Miller was supposed to be Arizona’s No. 2 starter. Instead, he’s just No. 2, going 2-9 with a 7.14 ERA. While he deserves the losses he’s piled up, he has a 5.64 FIP, so baseball is piling on some unnecessary pain.

FIP is supposed to neutralize extreme swings in fortune and numbers that don’t always rely on the skill of a pitcher. Yet even this bails on Shields, because while his ERA is astronomical, his FIP is somehow higher (6.83). You could say Shields has been a little lucky to be this terrible.

Strikeout-oriented: Shields’ fielding-independent numbers have gotten away from him because he’s striking out fewer batters than ever while having more chances than ever.

Since joining the Sox, Shields has fanned just 4.5 batters per nine innings. Sometimes that rate doesn’t tell the whole story. Mark Buehrle’s had worse strikeout rates, like his 4.4 K/9 in 2009. That didn’t stop him from having an ordinary post-peak Buehrle season, going 13-10 with a 3.84 ERA over 213 innings.

Buehrle’s success explains part of the low rate. The average inning didn’t last long enough to stumble into many extra strikeouts via a wrong guess or a bad call. Bad relievers with good stuff can average a 10 K/9IP via this method, facing enough batters until they can execute three pitchers in one at-bat.

That’s why strikeout percentage is more reliable indicator of a pitcher’s ability to miss bats, and this is another number that batters Shields.

  • 2009 Buehrle: 4.4 K/9, 12 percent strikeout rate
  • 2016 Shields: 4.5 K/9, 10.7 percent strikeout rate

You never want to be compared unfavorably to Buehrle when it comes to strikeouts, whether rate or percentage, but that’s how far Shields has fallen. Keeping it only to his own track record, Shields’ strikeout rate with the White Sox is about half of what it was with the Royals. It’s the second-worst in baseball this year to Mike Pelfrey, except Pelfrey does a better job of keeping the ball on the ground (Shields’ home run rate with the Sox is twice as high).

There’s just nothing to like with Shields, which would be bad enough for the Sox. But he’s also inflicted more pain by having historically awful performances at the most damning times.

He made an abysmal first impression by throwing three disaster starts, which combined with his last outing in San Diego for one of the worst four-start stretches in baseball history, making the White Sox look like the biggest of rubes for being desperate enough to trade for him.

Then he threw seven consecutive adequate-to-great starts through the trade deadline, which, combined with the two stinkers Shields has thrown since, make the White Sox look foolish for not getting rid of him before August.

These two sentences are related. If the Sox should have done whatever they could to get rid of him, that means teams should have stayed away from him at all costs. Anybody doing due diligence would have examined Shields’ best stretch and saw that it wasn’t fueled by better stuff, but rather the fact that he held opponents hitless over 31 at-bats with runners in scoring position. That’s an unsustainable combination, and the dormant period ended with an extreme eruption.

Hell, they wouldn’t even need a human to take it apart. Here’s the computer-generated write-up from Brooks Baseball:

Basic description of 2016 pitches compared to other RHP:

His fourseam fastball results in somewhat more flyballs compared to other pitchers' fourseamers and has slightly below average velo. His change is a prototypical pitch with few remarkable qualities. His cutter generates fewer whiffs/swing compared to other pitchers' cutters, results in somewhat more flyballs compared to other pitchers' cutters, has some natural sink and has strong cutting action. His curve is a prototypical pitch with few remarkable qualities. His sinker is basically never swung at and missed compared to other pitchers' sinkers, has little sinking action compared to a true sinker and has slightly below average velo. His slow curve (take this with a grain of salt because he's only thrown 15 of them in 2016) is a real yakker that's separated from his other curveball due to its big drop and slow speed. His slider (take this with a grain of salt because he's only thrown 11 of them in 2016) is basically never swung at and missed compared to other pitchers' sliders, is an extreme flyball pitch compared to other pitchers' sliders and has short glove-side cut.

On the podcast, I was asked how the Shields acquisition ranked in the pantheon of bad decisions by the White Sox front office this decade. I put him behind Adam Dunn, but it’s basically the same story. Everybody knew the risk of signing a guy like Dunn to a four-year, $56 million deal, but the assumption was that the White Sox would more or less get what they needed during the first two years, and the unfavorable-looking back half was the cost of doing business on the open market. Then Dunn had one of the worst seasons in history, and his contract became something to endure.

Shields came to the Sox via trade, and for fewer years (2½) and less money ($27 million) than Dunn, but the story follows the same arc (or lack thereof). Shields had the hallmarks of a declining pitcher, but all the Sox needed was a better back-end option than John Danks or Mat Latos for 2016, and they’d deal with the aftermath. Then Shields showed up and delivered a pie to the face of the front office by pitching worse than either, and the Sox are left to do the math on the most effective timing for a salary dump.

Assuming there was nothing to the brief Yasiel Puig rumor on deadline day -- I'm not inclined to read into it -- teams probably didn’t want to acquire Shields because they saw the White Sox step on that mine, and it didn’t look like fun. (It also jibes with a larger trend of teams not being interested in White Sox rejects, like Danks, Latos, Jeff Keppinger, etc.)

There was probably no reason for a contending team to acquire Shields unless the White Sox were willing to sweeten the pot more than the Padres already did. At the end of July, paying a significant chunk of Shields’ way out probably didn’t look prudent, unless you're dying to see more of Anthony Ranaudo. Two starts into August, any money saved would've been a victory. Where's Anthony Ranaudo?