A week ago, James Shields deviated from his standard game plan against the Yankees. That particular approach worked against New York lineup, but with no two lineups alike, Shields had to conduct a new plan against the Texas Rangers. In doing so, Shields produced the best start by a member of the Rays staff this season.
The Rangers lead the majors in run scored by a wide margin. Taking an aggressive approach at the plate, Texas is not afraid to chase a pitch out of the zone if it means a chance of hitting it into the stands. Crazy as it may sound, perhaps the best chance of success against the Rangers may come within the strike zone. As a team, they have the sixth-lowest contact rate on pitches in the zone, with several players above the league average in called strikes. This is not to suggest throwing fastballs down the middle against the league’s best lineup. But a well-executed, tactical assault of the strike zone might work.
This is the path James Shields chose to take on Sunday. En route to his American League-leading eighth shutout since 2008, the Rays’ right-hander pounded the strikezone with a cocktail of pitches. Throwing an array of fastballs, changeups, curveballs, and cutters, 71 of his 101 pitches registered as strikes. He generated 12 swinging strikes and 13 fouls while being credited with 25 called strikes. The called strike rate was a season-high.
Working predominately off the fastball, Shields greeted 22 of 29 batters with a first-pitch strike. He threw 17 first-pitch fastballs–well above his season average. In the later innings he incorporated more cutters and changeups to start off plate appearances.
On the afternoon, Shields struck out eight men. He used his changeup on four of the strike outs–all swinging–but also used his fastball to generate punch-outs. Taking a page out of the David Price playbook, Shields used the heat three times to freeze Rangers’ hitters.
In the third inning, Shields earned a pair of called strike threes with his fastball. Facing Geovany Soto, he started the at-bat with a 92-mph fastball followed by an 80-mph curveball; both called strikes. In typical Shields-fashion, he threw an 0-2 changeup low in the zone; however, Soto did not chase. After throwing the changeup middle-down, Shields came up-and-in with a 90-mph fastball that stunned Soto to end the appearance.
Following Soto, left-handed hitting Mitch Moreland stepped into the box. Like Soto, Moreland fell behind 0-2 on a first-pitch fastball (whiff) followed by a curveball (foul). Shields’ next pitch was a fastball well outside of the zone. In 1-2 counts, Shields has gone to his changeup 46 percent of the time against a left-handers this season, per brooksbaseball.net. Perhaps, geared up for the off-speed, Moreland was frozen on a 94-mph fastball low and inside for strike three
Twice, Elvis Andrus was called out on strikes against Shields. After taking a cutter for strike three in the seventh inning, Andrus represented the only thing standing between Shields and a shutout in the ninth. Possibly working off the success of their previous encounter, Shields jumped ahead 0-2 with a pair of cutters taken by Andrus for strikes. With his second shutout of the season a strike away, the 30-year-old reached back and fired off his hardest pitch of the game: a 95-mph fastball on the outside corner. Strike three. Game over.