Shields’ Sword

Jose Molina appears to be what we would generally describe as intelligent. He’s made a living as a good defensive catcher who understands how to call a game and presumably does his homework on opposing players. It was surprising therefore to see him badly exposed on Friday night when, in the bottom of the 7th with 2 outs and a man on first, he started to run (presumably as part of a hit and run situation rather than a simple steal) and was easily cut down by James Shields to end the inning.

The first thing that strikes you about the play is how amusing it is to see Molina attempt to sprint and then jog, with no real distinction between the two speeds; in the same way we can’t perceive glaciers or tectonic plates shifting. Watching athletes like Des Jennings run is awe inspiring but there’s also something strangely satisfying about watching a big dude try and rumble around the bases (the same phenomenon applies in football too of course). The second, and more pertinent point here though, is just how devastatingly good Shields has been in dealing with base runners this year.

Since 1970, only one pitcher (Kenny Rogers, 2002) has managed to go over 200 innings without allowing a single stolen base. Shields is currently tied for second on the list with 13 other players, having allowed the single bag to Eric Hosmer a couple of weeks ago. Looking closer at the list, we see two things jump out. One, players rarely even bothered to try and steal on this group (the ‘speedy’ Molina aside). Carlos Zambrano (2005) had the most attempts against him on the list with 10 while Rogers and Roy Oswalt had only one and two attempts during their noted seasons. So far in 2011, Shields has encountered six foolhardy runners, all of whom have been returned to the dugout with the exception of the aforementioned Hosmer.

What really separates Shields this year though has been his ability to pickoff runners, an action he is more directly responsible for than catching runners stealing, which is heavily reliant, of course, on a good throw and defensive positioning. Of the previously mentioned list of players to surrender a single SB or less, only one (Chris Capuano, 2006) added more than 5 successful pickoffs for the season; Shields is already at 10. Historically, those 10 pickoffs would rank Shields in 34th place all time, well behind the likes of Jerry Garvin (1977, 23) and the great Steve Carlton (1977, 19) and 6th overall in the last 10 years. However, when you factor in Shields’ elite OBP allowed (.276) which is better than everyone ranked ahead of him on this list (and hence fewer baserunners to pickoff), along with his ranking on the aforementioned SB allowed list, we can start to draw the conclusion that Shields is having one of the best seasons in recent history in terms of controlling the running game.

MLB.com ran a feature back in May illustrating Shields’ early success in restricting the running game with Shields himself adding:

“It’s really hard to [counter his move.] I can see them over there. I can see what they’re doing over there. And I can see them taking steps. I can see everything.”

When we look back at Shields’ career, it is probable that we will see both 2010 and 2011 as outliers, with his actual ability lying somewhere in the middle. That said, if he can continue to use his move to first with such devastating results, he will be able to either keep men out of scoring position or off the bases altogether; an added bonus for a player with the tendency to give up his share of long balls. Just another way in which Shields is a lot of fun to watch, particularly from the Sky Dome Rodgers Centre outfield seats.

[A hat tip to our own Brian Anderson, who currently ranks 11th all time in pickoffs, despite pitching just 1,500 innings, less than a third of the all-time leader, Steve Carlton]

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