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If the Yankees are going to spend, it shouldn't be on James Shields

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I'm not opposed to spending big on a free agent pitcher, but James Shields is not the right pitcher.

Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

I feel bad for the team that hands out a contract to James Shields, but I can certainly understand. Shields has been an excellent pitcher as of late; he's thrown eight straight 200-plus inning years and has had an ERA- of 83 or lower in three of the last four years. He's been incredibly durable, and he's had a history of pitching in Big Games, to coin a new phrase.

But, he's also kind of old. Shields is headed into his age-33 season, and pitchers typically don't last much longer, even ones who have been as durable as he has been. Of course, there are signs that he could be durable in the future. His fastball velocity has remained relatively consistent over the past few years:

shields_fastball

That's incredibly impressive considering his fastball represented about 41.4% of his repertoire. He's seen something similar with his cutter; the velocity has stabilized once it went up in usage:

shields_cutter

Once again, that is quite impressive. You may notice the drop after 2012, but that's only because he increased its use from 15.5% to 24.2% over the past five years. After seeing all of this, one would think that maybe he isn't so bad, that maybe he is worth the type of contract he'd receive.

The previous graphs were a bit deceiving. Of course it is great that Shields has not seen a significant drop off in performance, but it is important to remember that good-but-not-great pitchers with nearly 2000 innings on their arms just don't stay effective for much longer.

Shields finds himself sitting at a career mark of 91 ERA- and 93 FIP-, which is certainly pretty good. I took a look at some comparisons from 1988 to 2014 to determine what type of performance one would expect from ages 33-to-37 for pitchers of Shields' ilk: FIP-'s in between 85 and 95 with more than 1500 innings before their age 33 season (23 different pitchers). I then took their results and calculated the mean, median, and standard deviation for their ERA-, FIP-, IP, and fWAR in those years. Here are the results:


Innings Pitched ERA- FIP- xFIP- fWAR
Mean 461.33 100.32 100.10 100.43 5.86
Median 336.67 104 105 103 2.9
Standard Deviation 340.31 2.98 2.97 4.25 5.88

This is what one would expect. The average pitcher would be about league-average by all measures of pitching performance, and they would of course average under 200 innings per season. And even if one excludes the outliers of very poor performance with the median, you still get numbers that are incredibly underwhelming.

The only pitchers that were successful in this span were John Burkett, Chuck Finley, and Tom Glavine, putting up 16.6, 21.5, and 13.8 fWAR, respectively. There were also mildly successful cases like A.J. Burnett, Tim Hudson, and Kevin Tepani, but they certainly would not be worth the contract Shields will receive.

There's really no reason to hand out a very large contract to James Shields, especially when comparisons show that most pitchers of his quality and track record in the modern era don't last much longer, and definitely not at their current level. He will most likely have acceptable years in 2015 and 2016, but I can't imagine much more. The aggregate would result in someone around 95-100 ERA-/FIP-, which isn't particularly remarkable. The Yankees would do better either with short-term stop gaps who provided better performance per season or with an all-out spending spree. If the team wants to spend a ton, they might as well go with the best in Max Scherzer. At least then one would get a few All-Star caliber seasons before the decline, as opposed to a largely decline-based contract in Shields.