NEW YORK – James Shields at 35 says he can’t be the same old James Shields and still be effective. Change is necessary. That became painfully evident after he endured the worst season of his career in 2016.
“I’ve done this a long time, and every year I have to reinvent myself, change speeds and change locations,” said Shields, the White Sox’ proud owner of a 134-116 record and 3.89 ERA over a 12-year career.
After going 6-19 with a 5.85 ERA between the Padres and Sox last season, Shields is off to an excellent start — he’s 1-0 with two no-decisions and a 1.69 ERA and 16 strikeouts and nine hits allowed over 16 1/3 innings — in part because of the increased use of a slow curve. He began tinkering with it in the last two months of the 2015 season with the Padres, used it occasionally last season but has made it a staple in his arsenal this year that also includes a four-same fastball, sinker, cutter, slider, changeup and a standard 77-78 mph curve.
On a Sunday when, according to Brooks Baseball, his four-seamer (89.55) and sinker (89.25) were less than overpowering, Shields threw 10 curves averaging 77 mph and 11 slow ones averaging 69.
Miguel Sano struck out his first two times up looking at the slow one as Shields put together a third good outing in as many starts in a 3-1 White Sox win over the Twins.
The slow curve, which registered an amusing “Eephus” pitch identification reading on the Target Field scoreboard, is a big reason why.
“As hitters we’re so in tune to 90-98,’’ said catcher Kevan Smith, who caught Shields for the first time. “When it’s that slow your body is in a position to swing and the pitch isn’t even close. So you’re either going to be way out in front and swing over it or you’re not going to swing at it. Like a knuckleballer, you’re not used to seeing it.
“A lot of guys throw it but can’t command it. That’s what makes his so special. He can throw it for a strike and he can bounce it.’’
Smith was only around last season to catch a couple of Shields’ bullpens. The right-hander was fighting through hard times.
“He’ll laugh and joke about his velo not being there but if he can hit his spots, let the ball move on both sides of the plate and command the offspeed, he can be as good as anybody and he showed it (Sunday),’’ Smith said. “It’s exciting to see his confidence level back up there.’’
Smith saw “Eephus” on the board and laughed about it later. Shields saw it smiled talking about it after the game.
“It was kind of funny,’’ he said. “I had never seen that before.
“I mess around with it. I feel like I have a pretty good feel for it. It’s not a go-to pitch but it’s kept hitters off balance and it has been effective.”