The following article is part of Jay Jaffe’s ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2024 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to this year’s ballot, and other candidates in the series, use the tool above; an introduction to JAWS can be found here. For a tentative schedule, see here. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.
2024 BBWAA Candidate: James Shields
Peak WAR Adj.
Given that he made just one All-Star team in his 13-year major league career (2006–13), and only once finished higher than 11th in the Cy Young Award voting, it’s tough to argue that James Shields was a star. The 6-foot-3, 210-pound righty was a reliable, high-quality workhorse for most of his career, totaling 200 or more innings 10 times and making 33 or more starts nine times, five of which included an ERA+ of 110 or higher. He earned — or rather borrowed from NBA legend James Worthy — the nickname “Big Game James” for strong performances in high-profile spots, and while it wasn’t always apt, he was renowned for his work ethic and competitiveness, viewed as a player who could mentor younger pitchers and help to transform the culture of a team. Shields helped both the 2008 Rays and 2014 Royals come out of nowhere to reach the World Series, and wound up at the center of a couple of pivotal trades.
James Anthony Shields was born on December 20, 1981 in Newhall, California, just north of Los Angeles. He was the youngest of three sons of Jack and Cindy Shields; the oldest, Jason, was the same age as their cousin Aaron Rowand (b. 1977), the son of Cindy’s sister, and a future All-Star and Gold Glove winner during his 11-year major league career (2001–11). As a child, James would tag along with Jason, middle brother Jeremy, and Rowand, playing whatever sport was in season, including hockey and basketball as well as baseball. He didn’t play travel baseball until he was 13 years old.
Shields starred at William S. Hart High School, the alma mater of 14 major leaguers including a “super six” who were simultaneously in the majors circa 2016; Trevor Bauer, Trevor Brown, Tyler Glasnow, Mike Montgomery (who would later be in a blockbuster involving Shields), and Pat Valaika were the others besides Shields. By the time he was a sophomore, he was throwing 92 mph while also serving as a power-hitting first baseman. At the time, he threw a cutter and a “not-so-good” changeup as well, a pitch he discovered while experimenting with different grips playing with his brothers, and later honed into one that managers voted as the American League’s best five times in Baseball America’s annual polling.
Hart High was so dominant that during Shields’ junior season, 17 of the team’s games were ended after five innings due to a mercy rule. Shields went 11-0 with a 2.35 ERA and .478 batting average that year and was named the Los Angeles Times‘ Valley Player of the Year and the California Interscholastic Federation’s Southern Section Division II Player of the Year. As a senior, he helped the school win its first Foothills League Title.
Shields accepted a scholarship to Louisiana State, but when the Devil Rays chose him in the 16th round of the 2000 draft, he signed for a $262,500 bonus, though it took until mid-August for him to do so. Thus he didn’t start his professional career until 2001, and only after overcoming a minor shoulder injury that kept him in extended spring training. He posted a 2.55 ERA with 7.8 strikeouts per nine in 98.2 innings at two A-level stops at Hudson Valley and Charleston. Unfortunately, he missed all of 2002 due to shoulder tendinitis and subsequent surgery. Back in action at High-A Bakersfield in 2003, he pitched to a 4.45 ERA with 7.5 strikeouts per nine in 143.2 innings, wearing down late in the season and struggling with motivation.
That winter, Rowand — by this point three years into his major league career, and about to break out — pointedly suggested that his cousin come train in Las Vegas, joining him for workouts before sunrise. “I was being kind of lazy and just trying to let my talent take over. And that wasn’t good enough,” Shields told the Chicago Tribune’s Mark Gonzales in 2008. Rowand told him, “I’m going to show you how big leaguers really work and how to stay healthy every season and do what it takes to succeed in this game.”
“My trainer got him on a program, and over the course of a few years he went from not having much of a work ethic to probably having the best work ethic of anybody I have ever seen,” Rowand said in 2016.
Shields wasn’t out of the woods yet. Tagged for a 7.85 ERA in four starts at Double-A Montgomery in early 2004, he was sidelined again by tendinitis and then demoted to Bakersfield. By the end of the following spring, the Devil Rays weren’t convinced he was worth a roster spot. “I remember in 2005 I was actually supposed to get released,” Shields told The Athletic’s James Fegan in 2018. “I ended up not making a team out of spring training and they sent me to extended [spring training].”
Shields didn’t stop working to improve, and once he got to pitch, he performed well, putting up a 2.80 ERA and 8.6 strikeouts per nine in 109.1 innings at Montgomery, then made one start at Triple-A Durham and put together a stellar showing in the Arizona Fall League, where his 1.74 ERA was the circuit’s second best. “Though not overpowering for a right-hander, Shields showed he has the overall package to be a solid fourth starter in the big leagues,” wrote Baseball America, which ranked him 12th among the Devil Rays’ prospects. “He has good run on his 89-92 mph fastball, and he controls and commands it well. His changeup is his best offering, possessing excellent deception and fade… He uses the curve to change planes on hitters, and his slider as a chase pitch down and away to right-handers. He needs to sharpen one of the breaking balls in order to have a solid third pitch.”
After a strong 10-start run at Durham to start the 2006 season, the 24-year-old got the call from the Devil Rays, debuting in the majors with a five-inning, five-run performance against the Orioles at Camden Yards on May 31. Javy Lopez was his first strikeout victim, while four of the runs came in his fifth and final inning as the O’s batted around. Shields followed up with a pair of scoreless six-inning outings against the Angels and Royals, and the rest of the season was filled with such ups and downs, befitting a rookie on a 101-loss team. He finished with a 4.84 ERA (95 ERA+) and 4.39 FIP.
Thanks to improved command, Shields cut his walk rate from 7% to 4.1% while boosting his strikeout rate from 19.3% to 21.1%. He lowered his ERA to 3.85 (117 ERA+) while throwing 215 innings en route to 5.5 WAR, a performance all the more impressive given that the Devil Rays shut him down in mid-September given his workload.
The team’s improvement to 66-96 in 2007 could have hardly prepared anyone for what came next. With the arrival of rookie third baseman Evan Longoria, a trade that brought shortstop Jason Bartlett and starter Matt Garza from the Twins, and upgrades to the defense and bullpen, the team exorcised the “Devil” from its name and won 97 games and the AL East. Shields, who signed a four-year, $11.25 million extension before the season, led the rotation, making his first of eight Opening Day starts and pitching to a 3.56 ERA (124 ERA+) in 33 starts totaling 215 innings, good for 3.9 WAR.
He had already acquired the nickname “Big Game James” from his teammates by the time the postseason rolled around, though at Sports Illustrated, Joe Posnanski pointed to his short resumé and the comparison to Worthy, MVP of the 1988 NBA Finals, and called the borrowed moniker “the most inappropriate nickname in sports since Andre Rison decided, rather bizarrely, to call himself Spiderman.” Regardless, Shields did get the ball in the openers of both the Division Series against the White Sox and the ALCS against the Red Sox and pitched pretty well, yielding three runs in 6.1 innings in the former and two runs in 7.1 innings in the latter, though the Rays lost that one 2-0. Shields gave up four runs (three earned) in 5.2 innings in defeat in Game 6 of the ALCS, but the Rays knocked off the defending champions in seven. He delivered 5.2 innings of shutout work in Game 2 of the World Series, collecting the win — the first in franchise history — but that was the only game in which Tampa Bay beat Philadelphia. Still, it was an impressive run by the upstarts.
Though he started on Opening Day and took the ball 33 times for over 200 innings, Shields’ performance declined in each of the next two seasons. He put up a 4.14 ERA (105 ERA+) in 2009, but it was 5.58 over his final six starts. His ERA swelled to 5.18 (75 ERA+) — including 7.59 over his final six starts — in 2010 while he allowed league-high totals of hits (246), earned runs (117) and homers (34). His FIPs in those two seasons were just 4.02 and 4.24; he was seared by a .344 BABIP in the latter year. The Rays won just 84 games in 2009 but were back to 96 and a first-place finish the next year. They made a quick exit, losing a five-game Division Series to the Rangers, with Shields lasting just 4.1 innings and allowing four runs in Game 2.
Amid his difficult season, Shields started the Big Game James Club, donating a suite at Tropicana Field to begin a special club for foster children and their families. He also began studying biomechanics, realizing he needed to do more than strengthen his arm, to “[use] 100% of my body to throw a baseball instead of 40%,” as he told USA Today’s Mark Whicker. With the help of a personal trainer, he focused on ankle, knee, and core stability. The work paid off, as he turned in the best season of his career in 2011, posting a 2.82 ERA (134 ERA+) with AL bests of 11 complete games and four shutouts. His 249.1 innings, 225 strikeouts, and 5.8 WAR all set career highs and respectively ranked second, third, and sixth in the league. He made his lone All-Star team, and placed third in the AL Cy Young voting behind Justin Verlander and Jered Weaver.
Shields came up particularly big down the stretch in 2011, with a 2.43 ERA in 89 innings (!) over his final 11 starts; the Rays went 8-3 in those, and 35-20 in August and September, finishing with 91 wins and nabbing the AL Wild Card on the final day of the season. Their postseason stay wasn’t long, however. This time the Rangers dispatched them in four games, with Shields giving up seven runs in five innings in Game 2.
After the season, the Rays exercised the first of three club options in Shields’ contract, good for a $7.5 million salary in 2012. He turned in another solid campaign, but with a desire to get younger and cheaper and to fulfill a positional need, the Rays traded Shields (whose $10.25 million option they had picked up), Wade Davis, and a player to be named later (Elliot Johnson) to the Royals in exchange for Baseball America Player of the Year Wil Myers and three other prospects (pitchers Montgomery and Jake Odorizzi, plus infielder Patrick Leonard). The move was something of a shock given that the Royals had just completed their ninth straight losing season and didn’t appear to be in position to contend. But general manager Dayton Moore felt the pressure to win, and believed Shields was the right guy to bring in as a leader.
“We knew — our scouts, our analytics department knew — that James Shields wasn’t what he was two years (earlier),” Moore told The Athletic’s Andy McCullough in 2020. “But he would still be our No. 1 starter. We felt that he would bring an attitude, a swagger, a toughness that we needed at the time in our clubhouse.”
With Shields and another trade acquisition, Ervin Santana, solidifying their rotation, and Salvador Perez and Eric Hosmer emerging as productive regulars, the Royals won a respectable 86 games in 2013, finishing third in the AL Central. Shields did his part by posting a 3.15 ERA (131 ERA+) in a league-high 228.2 innings and ranking ninth with a 4.7 WAR. Picking up his $13.5 million option was a no-brainer for the Royals, and he turned in another strong season (3.21 ERA, 227 innings, 3.7 WAR). The Royals not only won 89 games but made their first postseason since 1985, then beat the A’s, Angels, and Orioles, and came within 90 feet of sending Game 7 of the World Series into extra innings against the Giants.
For as thrilling a ride as it was, Shields was Inconsistent Outing James. He threw a pair of six-inning, two-run starts in Game 3 of the Division Series against the Angels and Game 5 of the World Series against the Giants, but in his other three outings — the Wild Card Game and the ALDS and ALCS openers — he yielded a combined 13 runs in 13 innings and finished with a 6.12 ERA. That raised his career mark to 5.46 in 59.1 innings.
Shields reached free agency that winter and landed a four-year, $75 million deal with the Padres. The team hadn’t been to the playoffs since 2006, and new GM A.J. Preller sought to shake things up, which he did by making several big trades to acquire the likes of Matt Kemp, Justin Upton, Derek Norris, Myers, and more during that offseason. With the pitcher’s track record in mind, Preller hoped Shields could help reshape the Padres’ culture. Shortly after signing, Shields set a goal for the team’s rotation to reach 1,000 innings.
They fell 54.2 innings short in that department while the team declined from 77 wins to 74. Shields led the staff with 202.1 innings and 215 strikeouts, but his 3.91 ERA equated to a 95 ERA+, and so only one starter (Tyson Ross) was better than league average. Eleven starts into the 2016 season, less than a month after he gave up the Second Shot Heard ‘Round the World (Bartolo Colon’s first and only major league homer), and two days after Padres executive chairman Ron Fowler publicly called him out, he was traded to the White Sox along with about $30.8 million to cover a bit over half of his remaining salary. In exchange, the Padres received righty Erik Johnson and 17-year-old infielder Fernando Tatis Jr., who was just a few weeks away from making his professional debut after signing for a $700,000 bonus on July 2, 2015.
The trade turned out badly for Chicago, and not only because Tatis eventually blossomed into a star. The 34-year-old Shields’ performance collapsed; he served up 31 homers in just 114.1 innings, with a 6.77 ERA, and finished with just 181.2 innings, ending his nine-year streak of 200-inning seasons. In 2017, he missed two months due to a strained latissimus dorsi — remarkably, not only his first trip to the injured list in his major league career, but his first time missing a start — and managed just a 5.23 ERA, though a move to a lower arm slot more or less on the fly in early August paid some dividends. Meanwhile, the White Sox drooped from 84 losses to 95. They lost 100 games in 2018, with Shields dutifully starting on Opening Day and 32 more times for a total of 204.2 innings, leading the league with 16 losses but mentoring Carlos Rodón, Lucas Giolito, Dane Dunning and other young hurlers.
Shields netted just 0.4 WAR in 503.1 innings over the life of that four-year deal, and so it was an easy call for the White Sox to turn down his $16 million club option for 2019. As a 37-year-old free agent, he went unsigned over the winter but reportedly threw for at least five teams once the season started. No deal materialized, however, and he never pitched again.
On March 30, 2023, for the Rays’ home opener, Shields threw out the first pitch and officially retired as a member of the franchise that drafted and developed him. The Rays announced that the suite he had donated, which had been renamed the Home Run Club after he was traded away in 2013, would revert to its original name and purpose.
Like everyone else in the one-and-done segment of my ballot series, Shields lacks the numbers for Cooperstown. But this isn’t about framing his case for election, it’s about recalling the mark he left on the game. In his case, the workload stands out, particularly at a time when starters’ innings are so limited. In this millennium, only two pitchers have totaled more 200-inning seasons:
Most 200-Inning Seasons, 2001–23
Among active pitchers, the only one who might catch Shields is Gerrit Cole, who has six such seasons. Of course, Shields probably paid a price with those workloads, as he was done at 37 and didn’t even reach 3,000 innings, which until recently was a benchmark for longevity. Still, Shields prioritized answering the bell and keeping his team in the game for his long as he could, attitudes that left a mark on his teammates.
“My no. 1 goal was outwork everybody. I was always the first one here; I was always the last one to leave. I didn’t allow anybody to outwork me,” he told the Tampa Bay Times‘ Mark Topkin last April. “If that translated into a winning culture or a different culture and people, and it was contagious, great. My goal was to win for this team and win for this organization and try to be as unselfish as I possibly can.”