The purpose of this article is an intellectual exercise in prediction. I will be pointing to a few key matchups for the Cleveland Indians lineup which are advantageous for the team versus the scheduled opposing starting pitcher. Following the game I will review how these matchups influenced the outcome of that day’s game.
The Cleveland Indians are set to face James “Big Game James” Shields on Tuesday afternoon, though the nickname is more misnomer than indicator. The former above average starter is nearing the end of the road at the big league level and struggling to pitch at a replacement level rate in his age-35 season. Shields is coming off a 181-inning campaign with a 5.85 ERA and 6.01 FIP. The White Sox are not built to contend this season and Shields’ opportunity at big league resurrection stems from that apathy towards 2017 contention.
Shields’ struggles are those which we all encounter: The evolving degradation of our physical skills as age increases.
Shields has transitioned from a starter who sits in the middle 90s to someone straddling 90 MPH and the velocity loss has in many ways sapped his profile. Without the larger velocity gap, hitters are swinging far less frequently and, Shields is also left nibbling with greater frequency thus an increasing walk rate.
First, a notation. Shields has added a slow curve in the past two years merely as an occasional change of pace offering, certainly worth monitoring but likely to only see one or two per game. For the sake of this analysis, we will review the fourseam fastball, cutter, and changeup.
In 2015, and 2016, Shields has allowed OPS against his fourseam fastball of .925 and 1.026 respectively. Hitters can (and should) punish this offering. It is for this reason that Shields has to keep the offering away to left-handed hitters.
Shields does not have the velocity to run the fastball in and get away with it consistently, which is why over the past two years more than 30 percent of his fastballs are off the plate away.
For Carlos Santana, extending his arms away is advantageous, and the veteran first baseman is a great matchup play against Shields.
The second high usage offering for Shields is the cutter. You can most easily identify this offering as one that sits around 86 MPH. Like the fastball, this pitch has been troublesome for Shields over the past two seasons. He uses this pitch to work both edges of the plate, inside off the plate to left handers, and off the plate away.
Shields can live if he commands the cutter in and out. Buried inside, Shields can wield the offering to induce softly pulled ground balls while balls off the outside are not any easier to hit. For the Indians, the key will be to take advantage of fastballs over the plate and lay off everything else early in counts.
Finally, the changeup. This pitch was Shields’ calling card and likely remains his best offering, though it too has been hampered by his velocity decline. This pitch is best used when it is buried low and away to left-handed hitters. It will be fairly rare that Shields will throw this pitch for a strike. The key for the Indians is either forcing it into the zone or just eating fastballs.
If Shields throws a changeup in the strike zone, players like Tyler Naquin are prepared to punish the offering. Ultimately, with Shields’ limited velocity, Naquin is well-situated overall, but against the changeup, he is very good.
Shields is a very favorable matchup for the Indians. Punishing the fastball and mistakes with the changeup is the Indians road to five runs or more against the starter.