On Opening Day, James Shields preformed what Jason Benetti called a “magic act.” If the White Sox want him to get through the season, he’s going to have to do a David Copperfield imitation the rest of the way.
As I wrote back after the Sox acquired Shields, the righthander had a rather steady decrease in his fastball velocity. Now, in 2018, Shields started the season with a sub-90s fastball. Although he had one start with average speeds below 90 mph last season, Shields usually would show some velocity improvements in the spring. That wasn’t the case this year.
Also, while losing velocity, Shields has also been losing a lot of movement. Shields never had elite ride on his stuff, but his ball is definitely dropping quickly. Back in 2011, Shields had a ride of 6.63 inches on his four-seam fastball and 9.14 inches on his sinker. In 2016, it had fallen to 4.44 inches and 7.58 inches respectively. Last Thursday, the results were even worse: 2.27 inches and 5.26 inches.
For comparison, Chris Sale’s Opening Day featured a fastball and sinker that were riding at 10.79 inches and 14.90 inches.
In his early career, Shields was a fastball and changeup pitcher. With nice separation in speeds from the fastballs and great movement in the changeup, it really made Shields who he was as a pitcher. Now, with the velocity difference down to about six mph and fading movement, he’s had to adjust, and it hasn’t been for the better.
Last season, the Coop’ll fix ’em for Shields was to emphasize the cutter and change. But, along with the fastballs, Shields threw a cutter and two different curveballs.
The new plan this season seems to be a solution similar to the last gasps of John Danks: Throw more curveballs. Shields appears to have switched to the Don Cooper-preferred knuckle curve, and picked up some drop and fade on his curve along with it.
Let’s hope that gets him through the season (or until Michael Kopech is 100% ready, whichever comes first).