At 35, James Shields says he can’t be the same old James Shields and still be effective.
As anyone advancing in years can attest, change is often necessary in one way or another. That became painfully evident for Shields 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 proud owner of a 134-116 record and 3.89 ERA over an accomplished 12-year career.
After suffering through a 6-19 record and 5.85 ERA between the Padres and White Sox last season, Shields is off to a good start in 2017 — he’s 1-0 with two no-decisions, a 1.69 ERA and 16 strikeouts and nine hits allowed over 16‰ innings — in part because of the increased use of his slow curve. Shields has tinkered with it in the past, but this season he’s making it a staple in an already-diversified arsenal that includes a four-seam fastball, sinker, cutter, slider, changeup and a standard 77-78 mph curve.
In his last start Sunday at the Twins when, according to Brooks Baseball readings, his four-seam fastball (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 looking at the slow one his first two times up as Shields put together a third good outing in as many starts in a 3-1 victory.
The slow curve, which registered an amusing “Eephus” pitch read on the Target Field scoreboard, is a big reason why. Sano, somewhat baffled, had choice words for it after the game.
“As hitters, we’re so in tune to 90-98 [mph],’’ said rookie Kevan Smith, who caught Shields for the first time Sunday. “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 knuckleball, 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 [in the dirt].’’
“It’s not a go-to pitch,’’ Shields said, “but it has kept hitters off-balance, and it has been effective.’’
“He’ll laugh and joke about his [velocity] not being there, but if he can hit his spots, let the ball move on both sides of the plate and command the off-speed, 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.’’
It’s early, and he still has issues to navigate through — his first-pitch strike rate is at 49 percent, and he has walked 10 — but three consecutive effective starts is an encouraging starting point for Shields, who makes his next start Saturday against the Indians in the second game of a six-game homestand.
“We still have a long way to go,’’ he said.
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