BOSTON — The White Sox believe James Shields’ issues can be fixed, but general manager Rick Hahn also acknowledged a sense of urgency for the veteran starter with a 21.81 ERA since being acquired earlier this month.
Shields’ first three starts with the White Sox have been a disaster, with the right-hander allowing 22 runs (21 earned) in just 8 2/3 innings. Opposing batters are hitting .480 against him with a Bondsian 1.430 OPS, and he has as many strikeouts (five) as home runs.
But the White Sox aren’t writing off Shields as a lost cause because of three or four poor starts out of the 332 he’s made in his career.
“We believe the issues are fixable,” Hahn said. “We believe they’re more mechanics based than they are the unprecedented evaporation of talent in a premier starter. We believe in James, this coaching staff to solve the issues we’ve seen in the near future. It needs to get solved and it needs to get solved quickly, but we believe this is fixable.”
Shields’ trio of short, ineffective outings has put plenty of pressure on a White Sox bullpen that was already struggling before he was acquired from the San Diego Padres June 4 for right-hander Erik Johnson and prospect Fernando Tatis Jr. The White Sox bullpen went from a 1.69 ERA in April to a 4.72 mark in May, and while it’s been slightly better in June (4.26 ERA), as a unit it has baseball’s highest walk rate (5.89 BB/9) this month.
One of the main reasons the White Sox acquired Shields in the first place wast to stabilize the back of the starting rotation with a pitcher who threw over 200 innings every year from 2007-2015, which in theory would take pressure off the bullpen. But White Sox relievers have needed to log 17 1/3 innings in Shields’ three starts, which accounts for 28 percent of total innings the bullpen has thrown in June.
“It’s been very taxing on the rest of the pen and something that what we previously had as a problem (is) making it worse,” Hahn said.
The White Sox acquired Shields after what was, according to game score, the fourth-worst start of his career. His velocity was in a slight decline this year, though it’s more in line with his 2007-2009 averages, a span during which he was an effective front-line starter for the Tampa Bay Rays.
In the 10 starts before Shields’ disastrous run began, he had a 3.06 ERA with 23 walks, 56 strikeouts and seven home runs allowed over 64 2/3 innings. That’s where Hahn’s “unprecedented evaporation of talent” line is based — less than a month ago, Shields turned in a quality start (6 IP, 2 ER, 1 BB, 6 K) against a San Francisco Giants team that’s having plenty of success this season.
That’s not to say there weren’t red flags. For example, opponents hit .300 off Shields’ fastball and .467 off his cutter in May.
“There were specific risks in acquiring James,” Hahn said, “but even the most dire forecast would not have predicted the performance we’ve seen the last few weeks.”
The White Sox are sticking with Shields for now, with the right-hander on track to start in Thursday’s series finale against the Boston Red Sox. Eventually, the White Sox have to find a way to take some of the pressure off its bullpen.
Ideally, that would mean Shields turning things around. But Hahn intimated that may not be the only way.
“We have to address this fairly quickly and get it ironed out as quickly as possible or start looking at other ways to protect the other guys out there,” Hahn said.