BOSTON — He is nearly an ace. Practically a star. Virtually a beast.
James Shields might be considered every bit as valuable and impressive as Roy Halladay, Johan Santana, CC Sabathia or Carlos Zambrano, except for one hard-to-overlook difference:
Those guys are pretty much the same pitchers whether they are at home or on the road. And the numbers say that Shields is most definitely not.
It is a story that has been told many times, but the plot never seems to change. On the first day of the 2009 season, Shields again struggled to stay on the mound in a visiting ballpark. He wasn't awful on Tuesday. He didn't lose the game single-handedly. But the final line in the box score (5.1 IP, 9 H, 5 ER) is not what you expect from your opening day starter.
"I feel I'm a better pitcher at home," Shields said. "There is no doubt about that."
At this point, no one in the organization is claiming to have an obvious answer. Except for the numbers, they say Shields is not a noticeably different pitcher when he gets on the road. Maybe, manager Joe Maddon said, it has to do with a pitcher's comfort zone. Or his routine. Or the familiar backdrop at Tropicana Field.
"I'm just making stuff up," Maddon finally concluded. "I don't have a good reason."
Which is why this is threatening to go from perplexing to frustrating.
To some degree, a disparity is expected. It is not unusual for players to perform better at home than on the road. The Rays, as a team, are far better at Tropicana Field than elsewhere. And Rays pitchers, in particular, are more effective at home.
The problem is the discrepancy for Shields is far greater than the norm. The rest of the staff, for instance, saw its ERA rise by about 25 percent from home to road last season. Shields' ERA was nearly 90 percent higher.
"There is absolutely a statistical disparity, but I just don't look at it like, 'Boy this guy is a poor road pitcher and a really good home pitcher,' " pitching coach Jim Hickey said. "I just don't see considerably better pitching at home or considerably worse on the road. I don't have a good explanation for it, nor do I know whether there is a great explanation for it."
It has been theorized his struggles have more to do with Tampa Bay's defense outside of Tropicana Field rather than Shields' pitching because his strikeout and walk totals are not drastically different. But, if that was true, it would follow that the rest of the pitching staff would also have similar discrepancies because of defensive woes. And that's not the case.
So maybe it is a fluke. A product of happenstance. But that is also difficult to comprehend because it suggests a series of coincidences lasting his entire three-year career.
Which means Shields, 27, finds himself caught in a touchy situation. If he focuses too much on the disparities, they could turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. On the other hand, can he really afford to ignore the differences?
Shields discussed possible solutions with Maddon, Hickey and executive vice president Andrew Friedman during spring training, and it was decided he needed to address his routine off the field more than his performance on the field.
"James has brought up the fact that he is very routine-oriented and it's much easier to follow his routine at home than on the road," Hickey said. "So we're going to do everything within our power to make sure he is doing the same things on the road that he is at home."
So Shields arrived at Fenway Park three hours before Tuesday's game. As Troy Percival and Brian Shouse played cards in the clubhouse, and other players carried on animated conversations, Shields sat alone on a couch with his headphones plugged into an iPod and a DVD of the Dark Knight playing on the TV. Later, he climbed into a hot tub to get loosened up.
It all seemed perfectly natural until Shields walked out to the mound and gave up a home run to Dustin Pedroia on his seventh pitch of the season. He went on to give up four singles, three doubles, three walks and another homer to the next 25 batters.
After it was over, Shields did not make excuses. He did not try to hide from the performance. He said he felt like he pitched better than the results, but did not come off as if he was complaining.
"I felt I made some good pitches. I had one bad inning," Shield said. "That's just the way it goes sometimes."
And, with that, Shields headed out the clubhouse door.
His day was done, but the road is still ahead.
John Romano can be reached at [email protected]