BOSTON — From May 7 through May 25, James Shields had a 2.81 ERA with a healthy 30 strikeouts, eight walks and three home runs allowed over 25 2/3 innings.
That four-start stretch was preceded by another group of four starts in which Shields had a 2.42 ERA (April 15-May 2). That number four is important, of course, because in Shields’ last four starts — three of which with the White Sox — he has a 24.62 ERA, with as many walks (13) as his combined strikeout (six) and home run (seven) totals.
The glass-half-full point being that Shields, for as disastrous as his brief tenure with the White Sox has been, has pitched relatively well as recently as a few weeks ago.
“It’s trying to harness that and be able to get back to that,” manager Robin Ventura said. “It’s there. You’ve seen what the last ones have been but for him to be able to put that out of his mind and get back in to what makes him effective, it’s going to come down to location. Being able to locate, being able to feel comfortable on the mound and throw strikes and jump ahead.”
There were warning signs, like Shields’ 4.45 and 4.41 FIPs with the San Diego Padres in 2015 and 2016 (that advanced metric, scaled to ERA, is often a good starting point for predicting future success). But not even the most pessimistic projection of Shields would’ve predicted a staggering ERA north of 20.
The White Sox didn’t acquire Shields expecting he’d be the top-of-the-rotation force he was with the Tampa Bay Rays and Kansas City Royals. The thought was, with Chris Sale and Jose Quintana commanding the front end, Shields could help shore up an inconsistent back of the rotation. The 34-year-old right-hander has thrown at least 200 innings every year for 2007-2015, with this innings-eating ability supposed to relieve some of the pressure on a taxed bullpen.
Instead, Shields’ short, ineffective starts have put even more strain on the White Sox bullpen. General manager Rick Hahn alluded to things needing to change quickly for Shields, because if they don’t, the club would have to look at other ways to avoid taxing a relief corps that’s thrown 92 innings over the last 30 days (the 10th-highest total in baseball).
Hahn also pointed out the White Sox don’t believe Shields is experiencing an “unprecedented evaporation of talent,” over his last few starts. But a club that’s tenuously contending for a playoff spot — which also entered Wednesday one game under .500 — might not be able to afford giving Shields a long leash, even if he was pitching well a month ago.
“For a guy who’s had the success he’s had, he got knocked around a little bit, and that’s something that will mess with you or with somebody who doesn’t have the mental strength or desire to come back and fix it,” Ventura said. “He’s a proud guy so this is all new to him. But he has the ability to do that.”