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Q&A with James Shields, RHP, Tampa Bay Rays

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September 2, 2010

James Shields would have never imagined himself as the pitcher he is today. As a young, hard-thrower back in the day at Hart High School, he was the kind of kid who lit up radar guns and did the dalliance with the scouting world. He was nobody’s secret, but when he went down with a series of arm injuries that wiped out his senior year and buried him to most scouts, he quickly learned the first lesson that greets every young player who aspires to follow in his footsteps. It’s never going to be as easy as it looks or feels when you’re young and the best.

Fast forward to Shields today, 28, a veteran of more battles than he can count. Baseball Beginnings and Sheilds have known each other since one was called John and the other was called Jamie. We caught up in the tunnel at Angel Stadium a few minutes before stretch, 5:25 on the nose, and looked back in time to help other young pitchers understand how to become who they want to be.

Baseball Beginnings: If I gave you the chance to go back and talk to yourself at an age where most of the guys we cover are, what do you think you might tell yourself?
Shields: I think I’d say something along the lines of you have no idea what you’re going to learn. I mean, I look back at my senior year and I got hurt and I slipped all the way to the 16th round where the Rays took the chance on me. I played that summer with the (Santa Barbara) Foresters, because they wanted me, and because I needed to come back and prove I was healthy. From there I signed and went into pro ball, but it wasn’t the path I expected back then.

Baseball Beginnings: What is the most important lesson a young pro pitcher, age 18, 19, 20, is going to have to learn to be standing here, like you are, 12 years later still doing this in the big leagues?
Shields: I think fastball command is absolutely most important. I think when you go through the draft process, it gets so lost, because you’re having fun throwing hard and blowing it past guys. You don’t have to think about it. I knew that I threw hard and I thought I had some fastball command but I didn’t have to think too much about it. I had a cutter I threw and a little baby curveball. I barely ever threw a change-up, which is funny when you look now.

Baseball Beginnings: When, as a pro, do you think you really started learning how to pitch?
Shields: I don’t think it was ever one moment or one season where I got it, I think I just gradually became better aware of how to pitch. I had always been a power pitcher and then I was learning to be a pitcher. I think the thing that helped me was that I had always been a competitor. I always wanted to compete. I think that’s so important to stay here. I can tell you right now, if I was scouting 18-year-old kids, competing is something I would be looking for in pitchers. I mean, fastball command and competitiveness. I know velocity is what gets you sold, and I know a guy throwing 81 isn’t going to get the look, but if that guy can command and compete, maybe he can be a college guy. If I get a right-hander who is 89-91, who can throw strikes, who can compete, you can work on a breaking ball or a change-up with that kid, but you can’t give him the ability to throw a fastball where he needs to and you can’t give him the competitiveness.   

Baseball Beginnings: See, the way I scout you now is I see a guy who commands a two-seam fastball and uses that to cut the plate, saves a four-seam fastball to climb the ladder only when it’s to your advantage, and then there’s the change-up. If I say you’re a fastball-change-up guy, a two-pitch guy, I’m wrong, because I can see how you use three or four variations of the change – each one has sink, there are various speeds, and various breaking points.
Shields: It’s a chess match every night. Going back to when you asked how I learned to pitch, I think it’s a combination of every time I’ve pitched. You can have all success and learn nothing or have failure, learn from it, and make adjustments. That’s where your sequences and match-ups come into play. Then the further you get, the more it becomes about execution. You have to have the confidence to remember that every hitter in the big leagues will tell you how hard it is to hit a baseball at this level. These aren’t guys who are just hanging on, these are big league hitters telling you how hard this is. So if you can take those building blocks – fastball command, competitiveness, an understanding of sequences and match-ups – then you have a chance. If you can execute and command on 100 out of 100 pitches, OK, nobody will hit you.

Baseball Beginnings: That guy does not exist. I don’t care what the draft says.
Shields: Exactly.

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