While Roy Oswalt has been the ace in Houston for some time James Shields has just taken the role for the Rays. The similarities in their struggles this year are quite striking. We can take this chance to see what these similarities tell about their 2010 season and beyond.
Both pitchers had lower strikeout rates last year going from career rates over 7 down to 6.85 per nine innings for both of them. For neither pitcher that is a career low so not a huge concern. These two pitchers are not largely known for their strikeout abilities.
Both pitchers are control specialists with great walk rates. Shields has a career rate of 1.96 and Oswalt is only slightly higher at 2.06. Oswalt was right at his career rate with a BB/9 of 2.08 and Shields was only slightly up at 2.13.
So they declined slightly in K/BB, but they were still very good. Oswalt has had better groundball rates in the past and that seems to have played a role in his drop last year. He went from a 50 percent groundball rate the previous season to a 43 percent. That was the biggest reason for his struggles last year as his xFIP went from 3.55 to 3.88. The xFIP shows his 4.12 ERA was also a bit unlucky, but with a career xFIP of 3.58 and a career ERA of 3.23 it’s surprising to see him trail his xFIP like this.
His LOB% seams to be the main explanation at 72.7 percent this year down from a career rate of 76.2 percent. His struggles of 2009 centered around a slightly lower K/BB, a drop in ground balls and a bit of bad luck. All things we should expect to regress in a new season and be fine. His age is a bit more concerning that things will start to age, but it’s better to expect the Oswalt of 2008 over the one we saw last season.
Shields, on the other hand, does have some bigger concerns. His makeup was built on elite K/BB numbers due to a very low walk rate. His ground ball rate was never at Oswalt’s level and he had to have a good K/BB number to make up for it. So far he has with 5.11 in 2007 and 4.00 in 2008 and while his 3.21 in 2009 was very good, it’s not the level he has shown.
His pitching approach has changed over the past few years with fewer fastballs, which is his worst pitch with a career run value of -0.66 per 100 pitches. At the same time, he has also dropped his number of change-ups, which is by far his best pitch. Going from 30 percent of his pitches down to 23 percent in 2009. It’s unclear why he is making this change, but the pitch has always maintained run values over 1 per 100 thrown.
Much like Cole Hamels, he must rely on his change-up and get back to throwing it 30 percent of the time. If he can return to 30 percent of his pitches being change-ups then he can start to regain the form we saw in 2008 and 2009, but if not he will be the solid pitcher of 2009 without ace level stuff.
While an older option, Oswalt probably makes the more solid and reliable selection in 2010. He didn’t change anything and is dealing with more luck-based changes. His defense is no where as good as Tampa’s, but solid enough for fantasy purposes. If Shields returns to his pitching arsenal that was so successful in the two years before 2009 then he could match Oswalt, but that has more to do with what he does and not luck.