If you had told me on April 10 — the day the Rays fell to 1-8 — that they would rebound and climb above .500 before the end of the month, I never would have believed you. Who would have? But since that start, the Rays had gone 14-4 and climbed back to within 11/2 games of first place in the AL East.
Though it is possible to point to any number of offensive reasons for their turnaround — Sam Fuld's emergence, Johnny Damon's clutch hits, Ben Zobrist's offensive renaissance — the Rays could not have reached .500 without their starting pitchers.
Since April 10, the Rays have held opponents to a mere 3.1 runs per game, and their starting pitchers have posted a 2.86 ERA, fourth best in the majors over this time frame. The Rays starters are also lasting deep into games, allowing Joe Maddon to ease his new bullpen into the season.
The Rays now lead the majors in innings pitched by their starters — beating out even the Phillies with Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee — and are last in innings pitched by their bullpen. And for the eight games April 12-20, the Rays starters went at least seven innings while allowing four runs or fewer.
Though all five starters have contributed to this streak, one stands out: James Shields.
After a down year in 2010, Shields leads the Rays with a 2.14 ERA, and before going eight innings Saturday, he had pitched complete games in back-to-back starts, his first complete games since June 2008. Early season numbers are notoriously unreliable (for example, Kyle Lohse, with a career 4.78 ERA, has a 1.64), but there are some signs that Shields has taken a step forward.
Shields has long been a darling of the sabermetric community, as his value to the Rays is not properly captured by the mainstream pitching statistics. He isn't an ace, and he will not blow batters away with a 95 mph fastball. But he is an above-average starter that derives his value from limiting walks and lasting deep into games.
His struggles last season were mainly due to allowing a large number of home runs (34, second most in the majors) and hits (246, tied for most in the majors), but both of those problems were likely to improve this season. So far, they have.
Over his career, Shields has had 30 percent of the balls hit in play against him fall for hits; in 2010, that number bounced up to 34 percent. This increase might seem small, but over the course of a year, it is the difference between allowing 213 hits (around average) and allowing 246. The rest of the Rays' starters had only 27 percent of the balls hit in play against them fall for hits, thanks in part to the Rays' above-average defense, so Shields was quite the outlier.
Though there were some bloop hits against Shields, anyone who watched him could tell he was missing his locations with his fastball and leaving too many of them over the plate, allowing batters to rip hard-hit balls past the defense. He needed to improve his pitch location and sequencing if he wanted to keep batters from hitting him so hard.
So far in 2011, Shields has done just that. He is throwing fewer fastballs and cutters while mixing in his changeup and curveball even more than before (more than 20 percent each). He is also throwing more first-pitch strikes (64 percent) and getting batters to swing and miss on his curveballs and changeups low in the zone. He is being efficient and lasting deep into games again, pitching like the above-average starter he was in 2007-09.
Of course, Shields is not going to post a sub-3.00 ERA all season. His fastball will get hit hard whenever he leaves it over the plate, so he's always going to allow a high number of hits and home runs. He has had only 23 percent of balls in play against him fall for hits this season, dramatically low for even ace pitchers (by comparison, Greg Maddux had 28 percent of balls in play fall for hits against him over his career).
Shields is not this good, but if he keeps mixing in that curveball and keeping hitters guessing, he should return to his pre-2010 form and give the Rays 200-plus innings with a low-4.00 ERA. That's not ace material, but it is still very valuable.
Maddon believed Shields would improve this season, naming him the Rays' No. 2 starter. So far, he has been dead on. Big Game James' recent performance is one of the reasons the Rays are back above .500, and the Rays will need him to pitch well if they want to stay in the playoff hunt.
Steve Slowinski is the editor-in-chief of DRaysBay.com, a blog on the Tampa Bay Rays that specializes in analysis and statistics.