By Dan Bernstein--
CBSChicago.com senior columnist
(CBS) It can't be good when a team trades for a veteran pitcher to bolster a purported contender, commits $27 million dollars to his future and then sees a headline on Fangraphs.com that says "James Shields Has Been Messed Up For A While."
Shields has certainly been more than messed up since joining the White Sox in an early June with the Padres, having surrendered a seemingly impossible 21 earned runs in 8 2/3 innings. General manager Rick Hahn continues to defend the move, telling the Tribune on Monday: "We believe the issues are fixable. We believe they're more mechanics-based than they are the unprecedented evaporation of talent in a premier starter."
Pitching coach Don Cooper has admitted publicly that he and others are doing the proper forensic examination of these dead pitching performances to determine if Shields may be doing something to tip batters off as to what pitch is coming, even though every kind of offering in every sector of the strike zone has been hit very hard somewhere.
Jeff Sullivan's Fangraphs piece dives deep into the data to figure out if Hahn is right about there being something left to salvage, and the results are sobering. While noting that mechanics and mental approach could indeed be off, Sullivan looked at the respective velocities of Shields' five pitches, specifically a point in the middle of 2015 season in which every single pitch got noticeably slower.
"Shields lost something between May and June of last season, and he hasn't gotten it back," Sullivan wrote. "He pitched decently enough in the meantime, so people weren't horribly alarmed, but now you have to wonder. In retrospect, it looks like Shields has been messed up for something like a year."
This raises the causality question, and it's the White Sox's responsibility now to see if indeed there is something about his delivery that's sapping velocity or something structurally wrong with his body even though Shields claims to feel fine, physically. Looking at the peripheral numbers since the time of the drop-off, Sullivan notes: "Everything has gotten worse. It's like a switch flipped."
And it's not just a velocity issue, either.
"Beginning around last June, Shields hasn't thrown pitches in the zone, and he hasn't gotten out ahead like he used to," the article says. "Mix in reduced velocity and you have an inferior pitcher. I don't know how much can be rescued, but it's not as easy as trying to get Shields back where he was a few weeks ago. It's more like 13 or 14 months ago."
One could forgive a White Sox fan for clicking away at that point, not even looking at the charts that track in-zone and out-of-zone swing rate against him that indicate a near total loss of effective command. It's not a fun read for anyone who envisioned Shields being the steadying performer he was when he was younger.
But all of this data has been in the public domain and easily accessible to anyone looking for it. There's nothing proprietary, no secret formulas used or espionage employed to find it out.
So for me, the significant question isn't what to do now about Shields, it's what didn't the White Sox know, and when didn't they know it?
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