Remember James Shields? The one-time Kansas City Royals righthander was a great starting pitcher in his prime, and helped anchor the Royals’ rotation during their run to the 2014 World Series. Shields gave the Tigers fits during his years with the Royals and the Tampa Bay Rays. In his first 10 major league seasons, Shields topped the 200-inning barrier nine times, and posted a 3.74 ERA and 109 ERA+.
The James Shields opposing the Detroit Tigers on Wednesday might as well be a different person. He showed some signs of regression in 2015 with elevated walk and home run rates, and his FIP jumped by nearly a full run. That regression bit even harder in 2016, as Shields’ ERA increased by nearly two runs, to 5.85. His strikeout rate plummeted as well, resulting in a 6.01 FIP that was two runs higher than his career average. Even pitcher wins told the same story; his 19 losses were tied for the worst in the majors.
It’s a new season, though, and Shields had a solid spring. Can the Tigers break through for a series win in Chicago?
Detroit Tigers (1-0) at Chicago White Sox (0-1)
Time/Place: 2:10 p.m., Guaranteed Rate Field
SB Nation blog: South Side Sox
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Jordan Zimmermann (9-7, 4.87 ERA in 2016) vs. RHP James Shields (6-19, 5.85 ERA)
Game 2 Pitching Matchup
Both starting pitchers in this game struggled with their fastball velocity (among other things) last season. Shields has been on a decline over the past couple seasons; after peaking with an average fastball velocity of 93.7 miles per hour in 2014, his average heater dropped to 92.2 mph in 2015 and 91.1 mph last season. Zimmermann saw his velo dip by a full mile per hour from 2014 to 2015 as well, with a further drop in 2016.
The two starters have dealt with their respective velocity declines in different ways. Shields has not made any changes to his pitch mix; he continues to use his four-seamer roughly 30 percent of the time, along with a heavy diet of changeups, cutters, and curveballs. He threw a few more four-seamers than usual in 2016, but largely stuck to his signature four-pitch mix.
Zimmermann’s velocity decline is a bit different, since it may be due to the neck injury that plagued him for most of 2016. He threw fewer fastballs than ever before last season, with a usage rate of just 52.5 percent. In its place came a big uptick in slider usage. Zimmermann went from throwing his slider 22 percent of the time in 2015 to nearly one-third of the time last year.
So far, it seems like both pitchers are bouncing back. According to Brooks Baseball, Shields sat around 92 mph with his fastball during one spring training start in late March. There are no PitchFX data from Grapefruit League games, but radar gun readings from Lakeland had Zimmermann consistently in the 93-94 mph range, where he sat for most of his prime with the Washington Nationals. Command of said fastball will be more important for both pitchers, but a slight velocity bump doesn’t hurt.
Key matchup: Jordan Zimmermann vs. the elements
The weather forecast for Wednesday’s game does not look promising. With temperatures projected in the low 40s and a 90 percent chance of rain, there is a good chance the Tigers and White Sox get postponed for a second time this week. If the game is played, pitchers on both sides will have their work cut out for them in dealing with the damp, cold conditions. This is widely speculative, but Zimmermann may have a tougher time due to his ongoing recovery from a neck injury that plagued him through most of last season. While his fastball velocity spiked, he did not look all that sharp during spring training, and may still be getting a feel for his pitches. Rain and cold certainly won’t help.
The White Sox are in their current rebuilding situation largely because they have been unable to develop the role players and supporting cast necessary for a star-laden team to contend for a playoff spot. We saw this come back to bite the Sox again on Tuesday. Their top four hitters combined for six of the team’s eight hits, including two apiece from Jose Abreu and Melky Cabrera. Meanwhile, four of Chicago’s bottom five hitters went hitless, with only Avisail Garcia collecting a pair of hits in the latter half of their lineup. Those five hitters combined to leave nine men on base, and the entire team went 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position.
While Abreu and Melky Cabrera can do plenty of damage on their own, it will be important for Zimmermann to limit contributions from the supporting cast if the Tigers are to take a second straight game in Chicago.
Zimmermann struggles the third time through the order, but the Tigers win a wild one.