In June of 2016, the White Sox traded Erik Johnson and some no-name filler prospect to the Padres for “Big Game James” Shields. It was a shock that sent a message to the fans and the rest of the AL Central: Kenny Williams always gets his man. I can remember the hype around the move. The man had just given up a home run to Bartolo Colon. He could not be at a lower point in a career. I bought a ticket to see Shields’ debut for the White Sox. He haunted the White Sox for years with the Tampa Bay Rays and AL Central Rival Kansas City Royals. In 22 starts, he won a whopping six games and had an ERA under four. His debut for the White Sox did not disappoint. Facing the Washington Nationals, Shields went 2+ innings, giving up 7 runs on 8 hits, 3 of them being home runs. White Sox legend J.B. Shuck later went on to pitch in that game, getting Bryce Harper to ground out.
All jokes aside, it has been a move that is widely looked at as the unofficial start of the rebuild. He had a pretty bad first year with the White Sox, going 4-12 with a 6.7 ERA. It was the performance of him, and the rest of the underperforming White Sox, that finally made general manager Rick Hahn decide that it was time for the team to rebuild. They sent off Chris Sale and Adam Eaton, and you know the rest. James Shields became the face of the rebuild, in some weird way. He never really did regain “big game” form, but he was serviceable for the remainder of his contract with the White Sox. He was able to eat lots and lots of bad innings. I was assigned several of his games this year. I saw a lot of his stuff. I mean it when I say lots and lots of bad innings.
Even if the White Sox couldn’t count on him to be the ace or even a serviceable option in what the White Sox hoped to be a pennant race. Instead, they were able to look to him as a mentor for their plethora of young pitching, and as a rock in the rotation. Always able to give the bullpen some rest, which was often taxed when Dylan Covey, Lucas Giolito, or Reynaldo Lopez had extremely inconsistent seasons with lots of short outings. James could always go six or seven innings, sometimes giving up a lot of runs, sometimes keeping it to two or three. He would get some strikeouts here and there, but mostly just soft contact and keeping games semi close. He finished 2018 as a new pitcher, who was willing to work with his stuff, knowing he didn’t have the same arsenal he once had as an ace. He worked with pitching coach Don Cooper to change his approach, work on his release point, and change his arm angle to try and mess with hitters approach when facing him. He was able to keep his ERA under 5 in 2018, and averaged six innings a start, going out 33 times and throwing just over 200 innings on the year. His fastball usage was near a career low at 25% usage, while he’s added what Fangraphs categorized as a “slow curve”.
Shields had more value than what he put on the field, though. He was a dominant, top pitcher in the league at one point, even if it was not during his tenure with the White Sox. He has the experience of playing on the biggest stages. He had one of the best changeups in the league in his prime. Having James on a team with as much young pitching as the White Sox have has to have been an incredible tool. Dane Dunning talked about how shields worked with him during spring training to change his approach to some of his pitches. I’m sure Giolito, Lopez, Covey, and some of the young bullpen guys all got bits and pieces of advice, little tweaks here and there that may not make a world of a difference, but can overall make them a better pitcher. Don Cooper is already one of the leagues best pitching coaches, adding a second mastermind in Shields, and the White Sox pitchers had two of the best resources available to them in the league.
James Shields is a special player. He may be one of the last true “workhorses” in the MLB. The game has evolved, and bullpens are more important. Pitchers rarely go 7+ innings, usually, 5-6 innings is good enough for most managers, unless you’re the ace. Then the super bullpen (first built by the Royals in their back to back trips to the World Series,) takes over and the starting pitcher dwindles. Then, you’ve got teams using the opener, which changes the whole outlook on starting pitching, but that’s another topic for a different day. Pitchers nowadays are almost all flashy. Throwing upper 90’s with nasty curveballs. You don’t see many pitchers like Mark Buerhle, or prime James Shields anymore. They are fireballers who blow out their arm and need Tommy John. Look at Michael Kopech. He’ll be a stud, but he probably isn’t gonna have this incredible long career and constantly giving his team 200 innings a year. That’s okay though because that’s what baseball is becoming. High heat and lots of pitching changes. Just what the commissioner wanted, to change the pace of play!
Here’s to you, James Shields. Even if you weren’t “Big Game James” like us White Sox Fans hoped, you turned out to be alright.
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