James Shields has been one of baseball's best pitchers since 2011, when his career went from good to great following some adjustments to ensure that 2010 never happened again. He'll be a free agent for the first time this winter, and is set to sign a deal that will likely fall in the $100 million range as the third of three aces on the market. It might even end up being with the Red Sox, who need to plug some massive holes in their rotation and are already considered the favorites for his services.
The question that everyone is asking on Wednesday, though, after another poor postseason start by Shields, is whether they want to be the team who signs someone who might be an October disaster for $100 million. It's the right question to ask -- $100 million is far from nothing, and having pitchers who can pitch well in October is a thing that matters. With that being said, though, Shields' October performance doesn't matter enough to dissuade anyone from signing him, not unless they have a secondary reason to avoid him, like, say, Jon Lester.
Jon Lester will cost much more than Shields, however. There is a chance that he goes for as much as $180 million this offseason if he can coax seven years out of someone -- the same goes for Max Scherzer. Part of that is the respective postseason numbers of the duo on top of what has been a pair of excellent regular seasons careers: Lester owns a 2.57 playoffs ERA over 84 innings and 12 starts, while Scherzer's postseason ERA would be 2.99 if not for one blowout against the Rangers back in 2011. Shields, on the other hand, last strung two Quality Starts together in the postseason in 2008, and owns an 8.27 ERA in his six playoff starts since. He's older, with a poorer postseason track record, and it's going to come out of his future paychecks.
Photo credit: Rob Carr
Now, it's easy to suggest that Shields just doesn't have it in the postseason, but that's probably presumptuous for a few reasons. The most obvious of which is that we're talking about his performance over six starts spread out over five years, and the second is that we're playing around in his head when none of us honestly has any idea whether anything different is going on in there or not. It's fair to wonder if something is up, though, and if you're considering paying $100 million to Shields, you better be wondering if something is up with him in October.
Wondering about it probably shouldn't be enough to make a team decide they're better off with inferior regular season options, however. For all Shields' troubles in October, there's a much larger sample that will pay his bills: Shields has thrown 932 innings over 134 starts dating back to 2011, and posted a 124 ERA+ in the process. Among pitchers with at least 100 starts since 2011 (according to Baseball Reference), that ranks 10th. He's ahead of David Price, ahead of Gio Gonzalez, Anibal Sanchez, Zack Greinke, and ahead of Scherzer and Lester as well as the man who opposed him on Tuesday night in Game 1 of the World Series, Madison Bumgarner. Shields is legit.
Here is what it comes down to. Do you believe A's general manager Billy Beane when he says his shit doesn't work in the playoffs? Or do you think he's just been incredibly unlucky over the years, and that the playoffs are a crapshoot? Before you answer, remember that the A's lost the Wild Card game to Shields with Lester on the mound.
There were extenuating circumstances of course -- Bob Melvin should have lifted Lester a little sooner, maybe, and extra-inning bullpen madness is what ended up deciding the game -- but that's the point. Shit happens in the playoffs, and they have more severe consequences than when shit happens in the regular season. Lester had a poor stretch in 2013, but everyone forgot about it by year's end because he finished strong and dominated in October. Shields, similarly, had a poor stretch in the middle of 2014, but was absolutely lights out right up until that ridiculous Wild Card game. That ugly run in the middle of the season has already been forgotten about, but if you check out his Baseball Reference page, his small-sample playoff numbers are going to scream at you to scroll and stare because there is no major sample to hide them in.
Maybe you subscribe to the idea that Beane's strategy is and always will be garbage in October. I'm more of the mind that getting to the playoffs is what matters, and once you do, you just have to hope you don't roll any sevens. You know James Shields will help you get your spot at the craps table that is the playoffs, so he's worth that $100 million bet if you've got the money to gamble. The Red Sox have that money and more, so if Shields ends up being the available option, then it's time to write that check.