An awesome nickname can be a burden. As fun as it is to earnestly refer to James Shields as "Big Game James," the moniker is just as satisfying when deployed sarcastically after another lousy playoff performance. Try it. You'll like it.
Shields was bad last night, allowing seven hits before getting yanked down 3-0 with none out in the fourth, having put on two more runners that would come around to score. But, save a decent 2008 for Tampa, this line hewed closer to Shields' postseason track record than his reputation would support.
The thing is, Shields never asked for the nickname, and it predates his playing professional ball. He got slapped with it by his high school teammates, as much for his success as for the fact that he was a huge fan of Lakers legend James Worthy, the original "Big Game James." It came with him in his trip up the Rays' system, he may have cemented it by winning Tampa's sole World Series game, and—this can't be understated—it is really, really fun to say.
Shields is a damn good pitcher; this wouldn't all be so baffling if he weren't. He's got to be just as confused as everyone else, or at least in no mood to talk about it. His postgame answers were somewhere between terse and surly. "It just wasn't my night," Shields said, and later, just to mix things up, "It was just one of those games."
Shields was asked if there's any common thread in his run of rough postseason starts. "Next question."
It's realistic to wonder about the mileage on the 32-year-old, praised as he is for his durability. Since the start of his first full season in 2007, no one has thrown more innings than Shields. In 2014, no one has thrown more pitches than Shields's 3,915.
"He just hasn't been as sharp as he has been," manager Ned Yost said of Shields. "When his stuff is right he's dominant."
His stuff isn't right, and Yost saw it. Pablo Sandoval connected on a shin-high curveball to open the scoring, and the pitch selection was telling. Shields's curve used to be one of his most effective weapons before he began eschewing it favor of his cutter. Yet Shields has been shying away from his cutter, too, this month.
Before Game 1, Mike Petriello at FanGraphs took a look at Shields's pitch usage in the regular season and the postseason, and the difference is stark: against lefties he's largely abandoned his cutter as an out pitch (and his sinker in all situations), relying almost entirely on his four-seam fastball and his change-up—neither of which have been particularly strong weapons for him. Be it fatigue or mechanics or confidence, Shields isn't dipping into his five-pitch arsenal, and what he is pulling out isn't his best. "James had trouble commanding his secondary stuff," Yost observed. "He really struggled to command his change-up tonight."
Yost attempted to nip controversy in the bud by declaring Shields his Game 5 starter. (That's made easier by the fact that Danny Duffy, at times Kansas City's best starter this season, struggled in relief last night.) The fact is, Yost's options are limited. Of the entire rotation, Shields is the only one who had postseason experience before this year. The composition of the staff could be what does the Royals in more than their ace's struggles, but Shields remains K.C.'s "Big Game James" by default, whether he likes it or not.