Rays Ironman Done for the Year
Chris O’Meara / AP
Man, it has seemed like such a long season. It has truly been a struggle to sometimes remember some of the good times and the rough bad times, but one thing has remained consistent in 2009. You knew Rays starter James Shields was going to take the mound every 5 days no matter what happened. Rain or shine, you knew and counted on the guy who got the nickname “Big Game” James from a friend years ago to take the hill or the Rays. And one of the greatest highlights of the season was seeing Shields firmly establish himself as a constant force for the Tampa Bay Rays.
Last night as he took the mound for the 33rd start of the 2009 season, it is really remarkable if you scan behind the number on Shields in 2009. Some will shock and amaze you, while other statistics will just seem just plain “D-Ray” like in their stature. But above it all, he has truly gotten the title of “Ironman” on this team, and it is so deserved. For in this down year. Shields has now crossed the 200+ inning mark for the third year in a row. To put that into total perspective, no other Rays pitcher has even done that feat more than once in their total Rays career.
After he finally exited the game in the 8th inning, he had already thrown 774.1 innings in his combined Rays career. Now look at that number for a minute, 774.1 innings can be translated into 2323 total outs. And this is a guy who only entered his third full season with the Rays in 2009. The more you dig into his numbers, the more this guys impresses you. In the American League, Shields is one of only four pitchers to surpass that 200+ mark the last 3 seasons joining the Fraternity of Justin Verlander (Det), Roy Halladay (Tor) and Mark Buehrle (CWS), and if you want to go League-wide, he is one of only 9 to complete such a large task in the MLB during that same span adding the names of Javier Vasquez (Atl), CC Sabathia (Cleve/Mill/NYY),Dan Haren (Ari), Matt Cain (SF) and Bronson Arroyo (Cin) to the long list.
Quite an impressive group, and he doesn’t even get the acknowledgment of being the “ace” or number 1 guy for the Rays most nights. His 33rd start last night also tied his 2008 record for most starts in a season and is only one start off the team record set by Scott Kazmir in 2007. And it doesn’t seem that long ago that Shields was dazzling the Rays scouts with his tremendous Arizona Fall League campaign where he posted a 1.74 ERA and struck out 29 batters, while walking just 2 during 30.1 innings. He capped that AFL season off with a win in the championship game for the Phoenix Desert Dogs. The “Big Game” moniker has followed him for a long time.
And with his 8 innings last night, he finished the season with the most innings he has ever pitched in the MLB. Shields had garnered at least 215.0 innings the last three seasons, and his 8 innings tonight gave him a total of 219.2 innings in 2009. The final tally still brought him 4.1 innings short of the Rays record of 224 innings set by Tanyon Sturtze back in 2002. So this feat has established the senior member of the Rays rotation to be a work horse of the Rays staff. Maybe we will see him in Sunday’s Finale as a relief pitcher to get the 4.1 innings? Probably not, but it would be exciting to see since he would have gotten his 5 days rest.
And Shields is totally okay with that notion. But the 2009 season has been a bit bitter sweet for him. He did post his 11th win to get his record close to .500 at 11-12 during last night’s game, but it is his first losing season as a starter in the league. He did experience a slight losing streak when he only went 6-8 in 2006 when he first burst upon the scene for the Rays, but from that spot on he has enjoyed a 12-8 and a 14-8 record the last two seasons. And that 14 win mark in 2008 put him in a three-way tie with ex-teammate Edwin Jackson and the ex-Ray Rolando Arrojo for the Rays team record. Close , but no cigar for Shields.
But 2009 has not always been kind to him. He saw his ERA spike upwards from his 3.56 total in 2008, to a lofty 4.14 ERA this season. It has been a rough and long season for his 4th year starter for the Rays. Shields did increase his strikeout total from 160 in 2008 to 167 this season. But it has been a year of constant adjustments for Shields in 2009 to get hitters out, and to find a new strategy on the mound with almost every hitter. His 12 losses are a career high, but can be directly contributed to the fact that he has not gotten the run support he needed at times from his own team.
And to say he has been left out to dry this season is an understatement. When you are battling the opposition’s number one guy, you need your squad to produce runs to counter any problems you might be having on the mound that night. In 2009, the Rays hit only 4.38 runs per 9 innings during his starts. And in the offensive-oriented AL East, you need at least 5 runs a game to even stay on par with any of the divisions’ five teams. That 4.38 total is the 5th lowest support given to a starter in the AL this season, and the Rays have score 3 runs or less on 17 of his starts just this season.
But Shields can point to the run support as a contributing factor to his first losing season, but he also points to some un-Shields like consistency throughout the year. 2009 is the first season he has not thrown a complete game, and last season he threw back-to-back complete games at home against the Angels and the Red Sox. It has been eating at him that the year did not follow a familiar set-up, and Shields has been making the needed adjustments on the mound all season, but he still might end up the leading the AL in hits allowed with 239 this season. And the danger doesn’t end there.
Shields also in the Top 3 of runs scored against him this season with 113 total runs crossing the plate. And if he did not have enough to worry about already, he is tied for second in Home Runs Allowed this season with 29 homers. But there is a some brightness to all of these shadows right now for the young ace. This offseason he knows he might have to work on tweaking more command and control of his breaking balls, and might work with a few different grips to force some more movement out of his pitches. But when he reports for the 2010 Feb. Spring Training, he will fresh with a new attitude and goals for a breakout season.
So as he strolled from the mound after being replaced by Rays Manager Joe Maddon, the 10,554 rose to their feet and gave the Rays Ironman a standing ovation for his contributions to the Rays in 2009. Jame Shields has come a long way from being a 16th round selection in the 2000 June Draft by the Rays. He will be enter his fourth season in the majors next season, and has vowed to get back to his usual dominance in 2010. That might include a few extra minutes in his usual 3 1/2 hour workouts in the offseason, but the extra sweat and pitching groundwork might be the essence needed to push himself and the Rays back into the playoff hunt.
2010 might be the season for the Rays to show that they are serious about contending every season, and the guy at the forefront of that explosion will be Shields. If he wants to remain the top dog in the Rays rotation, he will have to combine a bit more control along with a hint of pitching finesse in 2010. But Shields has answered the Rays call before, and will again and again in the near future. It is not like the Rays have asked Shield to carry them on his back, but that is just an example of the level of commitment this young pitcher has to his team. He knows as far as he goes, this team goes in 2010. ‘Onward and upward” might be a motto for Shields next season, because you can surely picture him being the Opening Day starter for the second year in a row for the young Rays.