Playoff Odds (ESPN/Fangraphs): 78.9% (62.3% Division, 16.6% Wild Card)
Playoff Odds (Baseball Prospectus): 77.9% (47.4% Division, 30.5% Wild Card)
Well, I hope all of you who criticized the Royals for making the James Shields trade are preparing your apologies.
As Dayton and I told you at the time, Big Game James would not only change the entire culture of the clubhouse, but would be the ace that would lead them to the playoffs, the stopper who would take the mound in a must-win game against the Detroit Tigers and shove it for seven innings. And Wade Davis would be the best relief pitcher the game has ever seen. If only you would have listened.
Okay, I’m not writing my long-anticipated apology column yet, because there’s still plenty of time for the Royals to finish six games out, and as much fun as the last six weeks have been, that kind of ending would dramatically change the perception of the deal. And the same people who rip me now for my position on the trade would be ripping me for jinxing the team by writing an apology column prematurely.
But it’s not too soon to give Dayton Moore and the Royals credit for making a trade that played out exactly the way they said it would. I’m not talking about wins and losses and playoff berths – which was certainly a significant part of my objection to it – but that the players they were acquiring have performed the way the Royals thought they would.
Because that was also definitely part of my issue with the trade. Pitchers – all pitchers – are inherently risky. James Shields had thrown 200+ innings in six straight seasons before the trade, and certainly a pitcher who has a long track record of durability is more likely to be durable in the future. But Shields had fired a lot of bullets with his right arm, and there was no guarantee that he still had a lot of bullets left. There was also no guarantee that the Royals wouldn’t get the 2009-10 Shields, who made every start and threw tons of innings – and had a 4.64 ERA over those two seasons combined.
That hasn’t been the case, though. Shields led the AL in innings last year, and he crossed over the 200-inning threshold even before last night’s start. Helped by an amazing defense last season, he posted a 3.15 ERA, and helped by a very good defense (and a bunch of unearned runs) this season, he’s posted a 3.13 ERA.
Last year, Shields was worth 4.1 bWAR, this year he’s been worth 3.2 bWAR so far. They will likely wind up being the third-best and fifth-best seasons in the eight full seasons of his career. While his ERA as a Royal (3.14) is much lower than his ERA as a Ray (3.89), the combination of the lower offensive levels today and the great Royals defense means that he has been almost exactly as effective with the Royals as he had with the Rays – no more, no less.
And you know what? That’s fine. That’s great. The attrition rate with pitchers due to injury or ineffectiveness is so high that if you acquire a #2 starter and he continues to pitch like a #2 starter, you should be thrilled. That’s what Shields has done.
Look at it this way: if the Royals had made the same trade two years ago for Justin Verlander, assuming Verlander had the same two years left on his contract for the same money, we all would have responded MUCH more positively. Verlander had just finished second in the Cy Young vote, the year after he had won the Cy Young and MVP. He was the best pitcher in the AL, if not baseball.
Last season, Verlander declined, although bWAR rates him slightly ahead of Shields in terms of value – the Tigers’ defense was pretty bad, and he still had a 3.46 ERA. But this year he’s barely been above replacement level (0.5 bWAR). A trade that even I would have conceded would have been a worthwhile gamble – two years of the best pitcher in the league was worth Wil Myers – would have backfired badly, as Verlander would have collapsed in the exact season the Royals had planned to make their run.
Or imagine if the trade had been made one year earlier for Roy Halladay? In 2011, Halladay had a 2.35 ERA, his fourth straight season with an ERA under 2.80. He finished second in the Cy Young vote the year after winning the Cy Young; he had finished in the top 5 in voting for six straight years. He might have been the best pitcher in the NL. That would have looked like a very good trade – until Halladay fell off to a 4.49 ERA and only made 25 starts in his first year with the Royals, and then pitched so badly in his second year (6.82 ERA, 13 starts) that he retired. That would have been a disaster.
The Royals instead acquired a pitcher who was perceived as less valuable at the time the trade was made, because they placed a premium on his durability and consistency, and they have been rewarded with…durability and consistency.
And after starting this season disappointingly, allowing 63 runs in 117 innings in his first 18 starts, Shields has been at his best when the Royals have needed him the most. In his last 13 starts he has thrown 91 innings – seven innings a start – with a 2.08 ERA (and just two unearned runs). He’s been the pitcher from the catalog. Last Friday, he pitched a gem at Yankee Stadium with no margin for error, winning 1-0, and last night, he pitched a gem at Comerica Park against the Royals’ chief rival, winning 3-0. It was the first time since the second and third starts of his career that Shields had gone back-to-back starts without allowing a run.
Big Game James is no longer an epithet – it might instead be his epitaph. Maybe the trade won’t be enough to get the Royals into the playoffs, but Shields has been everything the Royals could have asked him to be. Maybe they paid too much to get him, but the Royals were absolutely right to target him.
Whereas Shields was a known quantity, Davis was anything but – which was sort of the appeal. If he could have become a #3 starter, and under contract at below-market rates for five full seasons, he might have wound up more valuable than Shields in the long run – that’s why I thought that, if the Royals won the trade, he would be the key to the deal. But then he went out and put up a 5.67 ERA as a starter last year despite the team’s defense, and had to be shuttled back to the bullpen. At that point the dream of Davis becoming a huge asset died, because I mean how valuable can a pitcher be if he’s only throwing 60 or 70 innings a season?
Oh. That valuable. Davis, in fact, has MORE bWAR (3.7) this season than Shields has. In less than a third as many innings.
Maybe the trade won’t propel the Royals into the playoffs this year, in which case we’ll have to judge its legacy anew. But right now, it’s the reason why the Royals left Detroit in sole possession of first place with less than three weeks left in the season. And the best part is that we are all benefitting – those of you who foolishly hated the trade can reap the rewards just as much as us enlightened souls who saw the wisdom of it from day one.