James Shields is not your typical #1 starter. He was a 16th round draft pick by the Rays back in 2000, then never rated as a top prospect as he climbed through the farm system. His fastball sits in the low-90s, and he doesn’t throw it that often, instead mostly relying on his cutter, curve, and change-up. The change-up is excellent, but the rest of his repertoire is somewhat unexciting. Until he started racking up 200 inning seasons in the big leagues, scouts were never that impressed with what Shields had to offer.
Through years of excellent performances, he has changed a lot of minds, and has proven that his package of skills can get big league hitters out on a regular basis. Today, we’ll look at three pitchers who have similar skills, and might be able to follow Shields’ lead by developing into an unexpected ace.
Jon Niese, New York Mets
Besides throwing with his left-hand, there are a lot of similarities between Niese and a young James Shields. His average fastball velocity sits at around 90 MPH, and to balance it out, he leans heavily on his cut fastball, while also working in his curve and change-up. And, like with Shields early in his career, the only thing keeping him from being a frontline starting pitcher is a problem with allowing home runs. From 2010 to 2012, 11.7% of Niese’s fly balls have left the yard; of the 24 NL starters who have thrown 500 or more innings over the last three years, only Bronson Arroyo has a higher HR/FB rate, and he pitches in a much more hitter friendly ballpark.
In K/BB ratio, Niese actually grades out ahead of guys like Anibal Sanchez and Johnny Cueto, but his propensity for giving up the long ball has kept his results from matching what they’ve put up. If he can get his home run rate down — and HR/FB rate is far less predictive than things like walk rate or strikeout rate – than Niese could be in for a breakout season sooner than later.
Mike Minor, Atlanta Braves
Unlike Shields, Minor has been on scouts radar for a while; he was the #7 overall pick in the 2009 draft, and Keith Law rated him as the #61 prospect in baseball before the 2011 season. However, Minor was highly thought of for his polish and proximity to the majors, not so much his upside as a frontline starter. After a miserable start to the 2012 season, however, Minor showed some flashes of developing into that kind of pitcher in the second half.
In the first three months of 2012, Minor issued 33 walks against 72 strikeouts, a mediocre total for an extreme fly ball pitcher who also gave up 18 home runs. The total led to a 6.19 ERA, and questions over whether Minor was capable of being anything more than a back-end starter. However, in the second half of the year, Minor started working in his slider a bit more often, and perhaps more importantly, he started working on the outer half of the strike zone with more frequency (http://espn.go.com/blog/sweetspot/post/_/id/28975/a-closer-look-at-mike-minors-improvement). The shift in results was dramatic – he allowed just eight home runs and posted a 73/18 K/BB ratio in the final three months of the season, and his ERA dropped to 2.21 over that stretch. His overall season numbers don’t look very good, but if Minor can continue to work the outer half of the plate and keep the ball in the yard, he’s got a chance to turn into a very good starting pitcher.
Tommy Milone, Oakland Athletics
Like Shields, Milone was a bit of an after thought as a prospect, not getting selected until the 10th round of the 2008 draft, then being overlooked even as he dominated hitters in the minor leagues. When he was included in the Gio Gonzalez trade last winter, he was considered something of a throw-in; the other three prospects in the deal were labeled as the real return for Oakland. Meanwhile, Milone quietly took his 88 MPH fastball to the Major Leagues and turned in an excellent rookie season, baffling hitters with an array of change-ups and racking up nearly four strikeouts for every walk he issued in 2012. He has the least impressive fastball of any pitcher on this list, but he also has the best change-up, which is the pitch that has helped Shields turn into a legitimate frontline starting pitcher.
Milone also has one other thing working in his favor – his home ballpark. A large part of Shields’ success came from pitching in a home run depressing park in Tampa Bay, as he allowed just 0.74 HR/9 at home compared to 1.28 HR/9 on the road. Milone was even more extreme in his home/road splits last year, giving up just 0.55 HR/9 in Oakland compared to an astonishing 1.77 HR/9 when he left the friendly confines. Those numbers will come closer together as the samples get larger, but playing in a big ballpark is going to be a significant benefit to Milone, and he may be able to ride the stadium’s park effects to better numbers than were ever imagined for a guy with his stuff.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.