I’ll just say it: James Shields hates base runners. I know, all pitchers do. But Shields hates them more than the average pitcher. Since 2006, James Shields is 20th in total amount of pickoffs, with 14. That may not seem like much, but what if we split up the data a little differently? Since 2006, James Shields is third in total pickoffs by a right-handed pitcher. The only two ahead of him are Justin Verlander and A.J. Burnett.
Verlander is an odd addition, since he is not known for being a high-pickoff guy. The only reason he has accumulated so many is because of his 2006 season when he had eight pickoffs. Since then, he has averaged 2.25 per year. Burnett has been a little more consistent, never going over four in a single season, but averaging 2.4 per year.
From 2006-2010, Shields averaged only 1.6 pickoffs per year, for a total of eight. But then came 2011. Shields already has an extraordinary six pickoffs in only 11 games pitched. To put this in historical context, only 217 pitchers have ever had more than six pickoffs in an entire season. If Shields continues at this rate, he will complete the season with 18 total pickoffs – good enough for third on the all-time list. The current record for most pickoffs in a season by a right-handed pitcher is 14, by Charlie Hough.
So what has changed in his pickoff move, if anything? Honestly, it’s difficult to tell. Mechanically, he looks the same. He winds up his body and brings his glove up to his head. He initiates the movement by stepping out with his right foot towards the third base side of the rubber while bringing his arm up and then stepping out toward first base while throwing. I attempted to time his move, but it’s so ridiculously quick. The best estimate I could get for time from first movement to time of release was about .4 seconds.
The only explanation I can give for his increased pickoffs (besides random variation, of course) is that he is varying the timing of his move much better. I watched his pickoff of Alexi Casilla on April 14th of this year and each throw over to first base (there were three of them) came at a different time after he was set. If the runner is unable to find a rhythm in the pitcher’s delivery, the pitcher will not lose any of the element of surprise he has with a pickoff attempt. Also, on this particular play, he threw over to first base three times in a row. A runner may not be expecting a third throw over and may get lazy.
Whatever the reason for the increased pickoffs, James Shields has apparently added a new weapon to his arsenal, making him all the more dangerous against opponents.