While we were getting ready for our 9:30 p.m. softball game last night, the Florida Pool Authority Wave had a spirited debate over the Rays playoff rotation. (Luckily, unlike the Rays, the Wave has firmly established its pitching rotation for the postseason). The unanimous conclusion of those assembled: Any rotation that includes James Shields is flawed. In fact, almost to a man, my buddies (who are all knowledgeable baseball people that are not particularly prone to knee-jerk reactions) agreed that Shields shouldn’t even make the postseason roster, much less start a vital game.
That, of course, isn’t a unique sentiment. In fact, a couple of months ago I wrote that the Rays should just consider going with a three-man rotation and leave Shields at home. That doesn’t mean, however, that it is going to happen. Like Carlos Pena, there is too much non-statistical stuff wrapped up in benching someone that has become a defacto team leader.
As early as last week, Joe Maddon made up his mind to use a four-man playoff rotation. Of those four spots, we can be certain that David Price will get the ball in Wednesday’s playoff opener, regardless of the game’s location. We can also be certain that Matt Garza will get the ball in one of the other games. That leaves the recently recovering Jeff Niemann, the red hot Wade Davis, and Mediocre-Game James for the final two spots.
Davis is the real wild card here. He is a rookie and has been the Rays 5th starter all season. But he has been electric since returning from a short stay on the disabled list on August 24. In 7 starts since his return, he has pitched to a 3.18 ERA (39.2 IP/14ER) while fanning 30 hitters and walking just 12. During his hot streak Davis’ strikeout rate is up (6.8 K/9 since 8/24; 5.98 K/9 on the year) and his walk rate is down (2.7 BB/9 since 8/24; 3.35 BB/9 on the year). Most important for this discussion, Davis has only allowed 3 round-trippers since August 24 (0.68 HR/9), way down from his 1.29 HR/9 season average. He has put up those numbers against solid offensive competition as well (2 starts against hard-hitting Toronto, two starts against pesky Anaheim, and one start — albeit a rain-shortened 2.1 IP — against New York).
Based on Joe Maddon’s recent machinations, it looks like Davis has pitched his way into a postseason start. Marc Topkin rightly noted that Maddon’s decision to push Davis back from Saturday to Sunday this week puts him on regular rest for Game 3 of the ALDS.
That leaves Niemann and Shields for the Game 4 start on October 10. Right? I’d like to tell you that the decision on Niemann and Shields will be determined by the Rays first-round opponent. But I don’t honestly believe that. A James Shields post-season start against the homerun-crazy Texas Rangers is downright terrifying in light of Shields’ well-documented home run struggles this summer. Add in the wrinkle that Game 4 of a potential Texas series will come in the Rangers’ band box and it starts to feel like we will be seeing a lot of Shields’ back while he tracks long fly balls.
None of that matters though. While Maddon is a particularly well-prepared skipper that relies heavily on advanced analysis, he is also sensitive to the club’s psyche and is loyal — often to a fault. (See Percival, Troy). I do not see any scenario that Maddon leaves Shields at home. So let’s make the best of a scary situation. Game 2 of an ALDS series against Texas is on Thursday, October 7. That would be Shields’ normal day in the rotation and would be at home. Maddon could be arranging the deck to use Shields, but make sure that he is used outside of Texas’ homer dome. Now I will be able to sleep tonight.