James Shields getting ahead of the curve

James Shields

ShieldsJames Shields' 2010 season bottomed out in Toronto on August 7 when he tied a live-ball era record by allowing six long balls to the Blue Jays. He’s off to a much better start in 2011, and it was a shutout Sunday back in Toronto that helps demonstrate the changes he’s made to bring about his recent success.

In Sunday’s shutout, Shields threw 34 curveballs, 10 more than in any of his starts since 2009. Jose Bautista, who saw nine of the curves, told the Blue Jays’ official site, “He kept throwing me curveballs. I never expected him to throw me that many...I tried to adjust as well as I could."

Shields threw his curveball almost 36 percent of the time Sunday, nearly twice as often as he threw it in Toronto last August. For the season, Shields is throwing his curveball almost 23 percent of the time, well above his 13 percent from last season.

By mixing his pitches better, Shields is avoiding his main trouble spot last year, as his increased curveball usage has come with an equal decrease in fastball usage. Twenty-six of the AL-leading 34 home runs he allowed in 2010 came on his fastball, including five in that fateful August start at Rogers Centre.

Opponents had a 1.060 OPS in plate appearances ending with a fastball, worst among the 112 pitchers who threw at least 1,000 fastballs last season. Shields threw his fastball just over 48 percent of the time last season, a number that’s down to below 40 percent through five starts in 2011.

James Shields First Pitch
Since 2010

Given the troubles he had with the fastball a year ago, it’s surprising that he threw it 65 percent of the time on the first pitch. Less surprising is that it got hammered. Shields allowed 11 first-pitch home runs last year -- all on fastballs -- the most allowed by a pitcher in a season since 2007. By not starting so many hitters with fastballs, Shields is better able to keep them off-balance, as he did to Bautista Sunday.

The results have been promising. Opponents are 5-for-22 with one home run against the first pitch from Shields, including an 0-for-7 by Toronto Sunday. In that August start in 2010, Shields allowed two first-pitch home runs.