Tampa Bay Rays pitcher James Shields is living proof that a man's self-esteem and All-Star aspirations rise or fall in inverse proportion to his BABIP. You won't find that link anywhere in "The Bill James Handbook' or any other Sabermetric source, but it's a fact of life around the ballpark.
For the past five years, Shields has been a staple in the Rays' rotation and a more accomplished pitcher than his middling national profile suggests. Since 2007, Shields is one of only five major league pitchers with at least 200 innings and 150 strikeouts per year. The other four: Justin Verlander, CC Sabathia, Dan Haren and Matt Cain.
But a workhorse mentality doesn't count for much when you're in perpetual duck-and-cover mode. In 203 1/3 innings last season, Shields allowed a staggering 246 hits. That tied him with the White Sox's Mark Buehrle for most hits surrendered in the big leagues. He also led the majors with 34 home run balls, one more than the previous club record held by Tanyon Sturtze.
A season to forget? For sure. But a look beyond that 5.18 ERA and accompanying carnage indicates that Shields endured his share of misfortune. Among 92 qualifying big league starters last season, Shields sported a .334 batting average on balls in play (or BABIP), the highest in the game. Between the line drives and gopher balls, he was a virtual magnet for dribblers, tweeners, four-hoppers and duck snorts, as Hawk Harrelson likes to call them.
"Last year was weird,'' Shields said. "I made some really, really good pitches, and they just seemed to dump it over second base or dump it over shortstop. Or I got the groundballs I needed, but they were right through the hole. It's just one of those things.''
Sometimes a pitcher rolls his eyes, shrugs his shoulders and laments all those beatings or balls that found a patch of green rather than a waiting glove. And sometimes he opts for Plan B: Go home in the winter, get to work and find a way to change his luck.
Shields, by acclamation, returned to Tampa Bay this year looking like a new man, with a tighter delivery and a more diverse repertoire. Although a handful of encouraging outings don't define a season, he's off to an encouraging start.
Entering Thursday's matinee matchup against Cleveland's Justin Masterson, Shields ranked fifth in the American League in ERA (2.01), sixth in WHIP (0.93) and seventh in strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.67). The Nos. 4-6 hitters in opposing batting orders were hitting .188 (12-for-64) with no home runs off him.
Teammates and coaches who were paying attention see the same look of determination in Shields' eyes that was on display when pitchers and catchers reported to Port Charlotte, Fla., in mid-February.
"He's always been an extremely hard worker, and that didn't change when he came into spring training,'' said Rays teammate Ben Zobrist. "What changed is that all off his pitches were around the zone. You saw that early -- the consistency of his pitches and his ability to throw them all on the corners and get that first off-speed pitch over the plate.''
Shields, a California native, spent five years living in Las Vegas, where he worked out each winter with his cousin, San Francisco outfielder Aaron Rowand. Two years ago he moved to Clearwater, Fla., in the offseason, and last winter he hired a new trainer, Chad Inovejas, and made some changes to his workout regimen.
"He ended up giving me some new ideas as far as biomechanics and ankle stability and core stabilization -- just honing in the balance part of the game and being able to have a nice little base when I'm pitching,'' Shields said.
The makeover began with a more compact delivery. Shields had trouble keeping his fastball down in the zone last year, and according to ESPN Stats & Information, 26 of his 34 home run balls came against the heater. During the offseason, he focused on reducing his hip turn, staying as "quiet'' as possible and doing a better job of focusing his momentum toward home plate and repeating his motion more consistently. It's been a constant focus of attention in his bullpen sessions with Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey.
Shields also has a fun new toy at his disposal. After several years of prodding from Rays manager Joe Maddon, he's making more liberal use of his curveball than in the past. The FanGraphs.com breakdown reveals that Shields is throwing his curve 21 percent of the time compared to 13.5 percent last season. In comparison, Shields is throwing his signature pitch, the changeup, about 26 percent of the time.
"It's not just an OK curveball,'' Maddon said. "It's a plus curveball. By throwing it more, it takes the heat off his changeup.''
With Shields, Wade Davis and rookie Jeremy Hellickson pitching well as the wing men for staff ace David Price, Tampa Bay survived an early injury to third baseman Evan Longoria and an 0-6 start to win 21 of their next 30 games. The starting rotation has pitched deep enough in games to ease the strain on a suspect bullpen, and that's a good thing given that Kyle Farnsworth, Joel Peralta, Juan Cruz and friends have 54 strikeouts and 41 walks this season. Tampa's bullpen has logged only 93 innings -- the 30th heaviest workload in baseball -- and the longer it stays that way, the better off the Rays will be.
True to form, the 2011 Rays are also adept at catching the ball. Six weeks into the season, they lead the majors in Baseball Prospectus' defensive efficiency rankings, which measure the rate at which balls in play are converted into outs by each team's defense.
#33 Starting Pitcher
Tampa Bay Rays
"We have athletes on the field, man,'' Maddon said. "When I look out at the field and see our team defensively and I look at some other teams, it really stands out. They don't cover as much ground or have as good a group of throwing arms as we do.''
Whether it's a product of luck, better stuff or help from his teammates in the field, Shields has an early batting average of .225 on balls in play this season. If you're the glass-half-empty type, you might expect that number to spike at some point. But at the moment, Shields is pitching with a sense of purpose and looking like a guy who's intent on proving that 2010 was the aberration.
"He looks like he's pitching for a contract,'' said an American League manager.
That backhanded compliment actually isn't true. The guaranteed portion of Shields' four-year, $11.25 million deal ends this season, but the Rays have three club options on him from 2012 through 2014. The options are for $7 million, $9 million and $12 million, salaries that would make Shields a prudent investment if he can get back to churning out 200-inning seasons with sub-4.00 ERAs.
If anything, Shields' early run of success has pushed him to work harder. After shutting down Baltimore in his last outing Friday, Shields arrived at Camden Yards at 8:30 a.m. for Saturday's day game. By the time many of his teammates showed up, he had already completed a three-mile run around the field.
"We're in the dome at home and I don't like to run on the [artificial turf] too much because it's pretty hard on your body,'' Shields said. "Whenever we're on the road, I like to go out and run on the grass.''
The grass feels better on his knees and his back, and it smells good, too, on a sunny spring day. That's the way life works when you're winning.
Follow Jerry Crasnick on Twitter: @jcrasnick