As nicknames go, it kind of rolls off the tongue. It is smooth, and it is lyrical, and if you want to put it on a T-shirt, well, it fits.
All-Star Game James.
And who would have believed that?
He is the bulldog again. He is dependable, and he is competitive, and he finishes what he starts. James Shields has rediscovered himself, and once more he is the guy the Rays want on the mound in a big game.
For Shields, and for the Rays, this is good news enough. Shields is Shields again. These days, no one questions his place in the pitching rotation. These days, no one doubts what he can do with a baseball in his hands. These days, Shields' turn to pitch is a pretty good way for the Rays to start the competition.
And so manager Joe Maddon keeps saying "Shields,'' and he keeps saying "All-Star Game'' in the same sentence.
Guess what? These days, it makes a lot of sense.
Beyond a manager's praise, however, beyond pulling for a nice comeback and a good story and a local player, has Shields really pitched well enough to be included when this year's All-Star pitchers are named?
Quick answer: You betcha.
True, there are a great many impressive pitchers across the American League, and also true, a great many are having swell seasons, too. Justin Verlander of Detroit, for instance. Josh Beckett of Boston. Jered Weaver of Anaheim. And on and on.
On the other hand, we aren't talking about the Cy Young Award here. There will be 6-7 starters on the AL roster (six pitchers who normally start got into last year's game). This year, Shields deserves to be one of those guys.
Follow the numbers, and you will believe it, too.
Victories: It isn't a pitcher's most important statistic, but it's where the sorting begins. In recent years, it has become trendy to sneer at victory totals, as if they hide truths that other statistics expose.
That's true, to a degree. Still, there is something to winning a game, to facing down a big hitter in a key inning. Winning doesn't count for everything, but yeah, it counts for something.
In Shields' case, his seven victories (against four defeats) is actually one of his weakest arguments. After all, 18 AL pitchers have won seven games or more; 31 have won six or more.
(For that matter, both David Price and Jeremy Hellickson have seven wins, too.)
ERA: It may be a pitcher's biggest argument, and it may be why Beckett (who has a 1.86 ERA) will be the AL starter.
Shields is third in the AL with a 2.40 ERA, less than half of the 5.19 he had at the end of last season. That will be a huge argument toward adding him to the All-Stars.
Complete games: As statistics go, this one was big back in the day of zeppelin races. No one argues complete games anymore, because not many pitchers have complete games anymore.
Still, it's a great number. Not only does it give a team a chance to win that night, it gives it a great chance to win the following night because the bullpen is rested.
Shields leads the league with five in a half-season. Only three AL pitchers had more all of last year. Heck, Shields only had five in his first five seasons.
Put it this way: If Shields can keep it up and average 10 a year, he would be only 53 seasons away from breaking Walter Johnson's record.
Strikeout-walk ratio: Shields has struck out 108 (second in the league) and has only 27 walks. That'll do.
WHIP: That's walks and hits per inning pitched. Another telling number for a pitcher.
Verlander (0.85) has been amazing. Weaver and Beckett (both at 0.92) have been excellent.
Shields, at 1.00, has been almost as good.
Batting average against: For some reason, it's one of my favorite numbers in judging a pitcher's dominance.
For instance, hitters are batting only .232 against Verlander, only .243 against Weaver. Against Shields, they're hitting .267.
Compare that to Jon Lester of the Red Sox, who hitters are hitting at a .325 clip. Or CC Sabbathia of the Yankees, who is giving up a .305 average (and has a 3.39 ERA). Those kind of numbers make their nine victories each fade a bit, don't they?
In other words, it's hard to argue that Shields hasn't been one of the top three or four pitchers in the league so far. When you consider how shaky he was at the end of last season, when he wasn't one of the top three or four in the Rays rotation, it has been remarkable to see.
You remember: Last year, Shields faded badly at the end of the season. He gave up the most homers in the league, and the most runs, and the second-most hits. To be honest, the last time I wrote extensively about Shields, it was to suggest the Rays look to someone else to start in his place. At the time, I felt as if I was singing in a chorus of 4 million.
It has been a stunning turnaround, a pitcher regripping his career. Shields has had more control of his pitches, more control of his mechanics, more control of his approach.
For one thing, Maddon will tell you that faster isn't always better. Last year, Shields was hitting 94, 95 on the radar gun with regularity. For a pitcher who normally throws 91 or 92, that sounds like a good thing. Maddon will tell you it was not, that it was an indication that Shields was overthrowing.
Now, Shields has better command, and he doesn't list to the side as often. As for the critics, they don't seem nearly as loud.
Yeah, the guy deserves to be an All-Star.
After all, that's a big game, too.