Pickoff move critical to Shields' success
Right-hander catches runners with unconventional technique
ST. PETERSBURG -- James Shields is off and running on an All-Star season at 5-2 with a 2.00 ERA and quality starts in nine of his 10 starts.
The Rays right-hander has pitched three complete games, including Sunday's masterpiece when he tossed a three-hit shutout against the Marlins in Miami.
In the fine print for what could be his finest season in the Major Leagues is one stat rarely looked at, but one that is critical to any pitcher's success: pickoffs.
Shields has picked off five runners this season, which ties him with Oakland's Brett Anderson for the Major League lead. Not only do the pickoffs indicate an ability to nail would-be basestealers once they venture too far off the bag, they also represent a penchant for controlling the running game.
Joe Maddon has been in professional baseball since 1975. He's seen many pitchers and their variety of pickoffs moves. When asked if Shields is the best his seen at picking off runners, the Rays manager didn't hesitate when he replied, "Right-handed? Absolutely."
How does Shields get the job done? He credits much of his ability to pick off runners to his antics once he goes into the stretch. Rather than simply look over his shoulder, he dips and makes an odd twisted turn of his shoulders in which he takes a healthy look at the baserunner. In the process, he resembles a crane tip-toeing through shallow water searching for lunch if it happens to swim by. Shields' fish are baserunners.
Former Major Leaguer Dick Bosman was Shields' pitching coach early in Shields' professional career.
"He's always big on controlling the running game and being able to identify the lead over at first base," Shields said. "In order to do that, you have to use both of your eyes to judge the distance. Once you come set and you have them locked into your peripheral vision, you only can measure movement. So you can see movement over there. That's kind of where I got the dip.
"When I kind of dip down and look over at first, I can measure the distance between how far of a lead they have. And just so that I have an idea of what's going on over there rather than not knowing at all."
The information Shields gathers while making is initial look over to first base is coupled in his mind with some of the work he did prior to the game.
"I look at all the cutouts at every field," Shields said. "On average, the cutout is 12 feet. That's where I measure up how far the distance is, how far of a lead they have. So that way, if I know they don't have a stealing lead then I can focus in on making my pitch to the plate."
Success breeds imitation. So the question begs to be asked: Why don't more pitchers copy Shields? For starters, it's an awkward movement. In Shields case, that movement has become habit.
"At first it was awkward, but I've been doing it so long now that it's just become routine," Shields said. "I don't know anything different now. I've been doing it since 2001. And the reason I go down so far is to just allow me to really see [the baserunner] for a long time. A lot of guys just turn their shoulder, but that's just the way I've been doing it."
Maddon noted that former star right-hander Mike Mussina is the only other pitcher he's seen using a move similar to Shields'.
The move is "really to identify the length of the lead," Maddon said. "After you've done that you can determine if it's more, is it less? Do I like that? Do I feel comfortable with that? But the other part [of Shields' success with pickoffs] is extremely quick feet coming over to the bag when he decides to go.
"I would have to say, if you measured his peripheral vision, it's excellent. And on top of that he's got those quick athletic feet that let him make those plays."
While pickoffs are nice, the bottom line is controlling the running game according to Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey.
"I'm not worried about guys picking guys off as much as keeping guys close," Hickey said. "If you've got the best pickoff move in the world, but you're 1.65 seconds to home plate, it doesn't mean anything. The guy's going to run at will. I'd rather see our pitchers hold the ball and deliver the ball quickly to home plate rather than having a great pickoff move."
Hickey called Shields' times to home "fine" but not "stellar."
"But guys having to stay close, because they're aware they might get picked off, combined with his times make him really, really good," Hickey said.
Scouts and opposing teams watch Shields' move, giving them ample opportunity to try and outsmart him or devise something to combat the move. But to Shields' way of thinking, there's little they can do.
"It's really hard to [counter his move]," Shields said. "I can see them over there. I can see what they're doing over there. And I can see them taking steps. I can see everything. That's the advantage I have."
In essence, a baserunner's only recourse is to take less of a lead, which basically is the equivalent of waiving a surrender flag to Shields.
"If they don't want to take the lead that's good for me," Shields said. "Now I can just focus in on making my pitch and maybe getting a ground-ball double-play or keeping them at bay over there."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.