MLB: Chicago White Sox at Oakland Athletics

South Side Morning 5: James Shields changes and stays the same

1. James Shields’ second straight dinger-laden outing in Tuesday’s loss to the Athletics was yet another reminder of how small his margin for error has become as he enters the twilight of his career. As his fastball velocity has dropped, Shields seemed to reinvent himself this season to a certain extent, and has relied more on a slow, loopy curveball rather than the dangerous changeup he was known for early in his career.

He found success with this early on, and in bits and pieces of his last two starts. The problem is that his fastball has become exponentially more hittable. After giving up three home runs to the Athletics last week, he allowed three more in a 7-6 loss, all on fastballs or changeups.

As James Fegan pointed out over at the Athletic, Shields’ home run rate is actually higher this season than it was during his disastrous 2016 stint with the White Sox. This seems impossible but underscores the point — his velocity has dipped to the point where if he’s not getting ahead and locating it, it’s going to get crushed. 89 mph fastballs left over the heart of the plate aren’t going to be missed too often, and when the velocity difference between his fastball and changeup is only ~5 mph, as opposed to 8-9 mph as was the case in his prime, that makes a world of difference.

Even when he’s on his game, getting ahead and putting away hitters with that hellaciously slow curveball, Shields starts are far from appointment viewing. His lack of a future with the rebuilding White Sox is, at this point, in line with that of Mike Pelfrey’s. Like with the Pelf Dawg, you just have to hope he eats enough innings to limit the load on an overworked bullpen as much as possible.

That last point also illustrates the fact that it’s hard to envision him going away anytime soon. Unless the White Sox think Reynaldo Lopez or someone of his ilk is ready for a full-time promotion, the White Sox pitching depth is thin enough that any arm with the potential of providing five innings, six or seven on a good day, in a given start is worth keeping around during a season where wins aren’t all that important.

2. Avisail Garcia is a very worthy All-Star, as we wrote about earlier this week, but Jose Abreu should be in the conversation as an injury replacement if and when any of the already rostered players pull out of the game. Abreu’s chances of making the initial roster were always thin given the randomly good first half numbers put up by the likes of Justin Smoak, Yonder Alonso, and Logan Morrison, as well as the fact that the former two represented the only All-Star selections from the Blue Jays and Athletics, respectively.

Nonetheless, Abreu is up to .292/.340/.515 after scorching his 16th home run of the season Tuesday. And if you’ll excuse the arbitrary end points, since his OPS dipped below .800 briefly on June 8, he’s hit .327/.363/.596 in 113 plate appearances entering play Tuesday. There was concern about Abreu entering this season now that he’s on the wrong side of 30 and battled injuries in 2016, but he’s been on a tear for most of the first half, and despite saying he’ll be headed to Miami “as a fan” to hang out with his family, could find himself in the game depending on how things fall.

3. David Robertson is on the paternity list for the White Sox series in Oakland as he and his wife welcomed their second child Monday. Robertson’s absence could provide the White Sox with a preview of what the bullpen will look like soon enough as we’re now inside one month until the July 31 trade deadline. Unfortunately, the White Sox haven’t faced a save situation in either of the two games of the series, winning Monday’s game 7-2 and dropping Tuesday’s contest 7-6 in walk-off fashion.

The obvious option to close if and when Robertson is dealt would be Tommy Kahnle, who Rick Renteria expressed confidence in when asked about the possibility earlier this week. Anthony Swarzak is also an option, but he’s also a trade possibility. The wild card would be Zack Burdi, who has 49 strikeouts in 31 innings this season at Triple-A Charlotte, but even if he’s promoted within the next month, it’s hard to imagine the White Sox throwing him into that role right off the bat, even if he has “future closer” written all over him.

4. Speaking of Swarzak, after opening the season holding opponents to an OPS of .182 for March and April, pairing a lively 94-97 mph fastball with a sharp slider, he appeared to be regressing to being merely adequate as hitters began making much more contact.  Granted, even as he “slumped,” he has yet to allow a slugging percentage over .400 any month of the season.

However, since June 20, he has returned to being a shutdown option, with 11 strikeouts against only 5 baserunners and no runs charged to him over the his last seven innings.  Even if potential trade partners aren’t likely to be fooled into thinking Swarzak is now Hoyt Wilhelm reborn, this recovery shoves more data on the side of the ledger saying, “At a minimum, he’s pretty good.”

Jon Bernhardt joined our Nick Schaefer in pointing out that the Nationals need more than just Robertson, and it would make a lot of sense if they tried to grab Swarzak as well in any potential deal.  Even if Swarzak retired tomorrow, clearly he was a jackpot of a result for a non-roster invitation this spring.

5. And yes, the Nationals bullpen is still a mess.  As effective as he has been, there’s a reason Matt Albers had not logged a save in his entire career before arriving in Washington.  Moreover, Albers is hardly the Nationals’ biggest problem.  They’re going to run away with their division regardless, but this organization only has two years left with Bryce Harper, and with a superb rotation and lineup it would be unconscionable to enter the playoffs hoping this relief corps as presently constituted won’t sabotage an otherwise championship-caliber roster.

Lead Photo Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Related Articles

2 comments on “South Side Morning 5: James Shields changes and stays the same”


Hoping Kahnle is traded this year. Sell high.


With the disappointing seasons of Giolito, Fulmer, and Collins this rebuild could use an infusion of talent from the surprise performances of Swarzak and Kahnle.

Leave a reply Cancel reply

Use your Baseball Prospectus username