PORT CHARLOTTE — The explanations for James Shields' rough 2010 season span from bad pitching to bad luck with some poor mechanics and pitch selection along the way. With a career-high 15 losses, 5.18 ERA and an AL-most and team-record 34 home runs allowed, there is a lot to talk about.
Shields' version is it wasn't nearly as bad as it looked, more a matter of a couple of pitches in a couple of innings over a couple of games that inflated the numbers.
"If you take away three or four of my games," the right-hander said, "I've got a sub-4 ERA and no one's really talking about it."
There's something to that, although his math might be a bit off — given the six-homer debacle in Toronto, a 10-runs-in-31/3-innings mess in Miami and a couple of 6-7 spots along the way.
And there are stats to support the "unfortunate" angle — "terribly unlucky" concludes SI.com's sabermetric analysis — given Shields still had impressive strikeout numbers (a career-high 187 in 2031/3 innings and a 3.67 strikeouts-to-walk ratio that was fourth best in the AL).
He also didn't allow more line drives or fly balls than usual, which could have been the cause of the bloated runs and homer totals. And he had the lowest run support and most unearned runs on the staff. (Of the 10 games the Rays were shut out, he was the loser five times.)
Pitching coach Jim Hickey takes a broader view, acknowledging the blips and some mechanical flaws while pointing out the positives such as the strikeout totals and Shields' 5-1, 3.08 record through his first nine starts.
But, he concludes, "There may have been some misfortune, but there were probably more bad pitches than there was bad luck."
The Rays have reasons to believe Shields, 29, can bounce back, enough to keep him the No. 2 starter in their rotation and for Hickey to say "any reasonable person should believe that he's going to perform considerably better than last year."
Some are simple. Shields is healthy. He went through extensive winter workouts to strengthen his core and improve his balance. He has corrected the flaws in his mechanics that flattened out his pitches and made his fastball too hittable (a .348 average against, highest in the AL).
For manager Joe Maddon, it's just a matter of Shields pitching better.
"First of all, his stuff is still really good," Maddon said. "It's not like he had bad stuff or he'd been hurt or he lost something last year. He didn't do any of that. I just think (he needs) a better mix of his pitches, better utilization of his curveball within the mix of everything else that he's doing, overall better location of his fastball, which he's very capable of.
On Wednesday, Shields pitched seven shutout innings against the Phillies, allowing four hits and one walk.
"His delivery was better," Maddon said. "It permitted him to throw the ball where he wanted to and not miss. It's very small adjustments, and a lot of it has to do purely with delivery and not to change it in a sense of trying new things, but maybe trying to do less."
For teammate David Price, it's a matter of pride.
"Everyone who knows Shields knows that he has a ton of pride," Price said. "What happened to him last year, I'm sure he was embarrassed.
"His pride was shot a little bit. That's not like him. Everybody around here knows that. I feel like he will come back this year and continue on the same path he was before 2010."
For Shields, it's a matter of knowing how he feels, based on how he has pitched this spring (1-0, 1.88 ERA, two homers in 141/3 innings).
"The biggest reason is that I know myself better than anybody, and I know what I'm capable of doing," he said. "I worked my butt off this offseason, and this spring I really honed in on my mechanics as much as I could. I feel really strong right now. I feel really good.
"If I can focus all year on keeping the ball down and executing my pitches when it counts, I think it's going to be fine. There shouldn't be any problems."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]s.com.
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SPRING TRAINING TODAY
Rays vs. Pirates
1:05, Port Charlotte
Other area teams
• Phillies vs. Braves, 1:05, Clearwater, ESPN
• Yankees vs. Astros, 7:05, Tampa
• Blue Jays at Red Sox, 7:05, Fort Myers