James Shields needs to live up to his "Big Game" billing tonight, as the Rays (one game behind Boston in the Wild Card standings) open a three-game set with the Yankees. Shields has shut down New York this year, posting a 27/7 K/BB ratio in 30 innings pitched while holding Bombers batters to a collective .222/.270/.343 line. A big reason for Shields' success against the majors' second-most potent offense is that he's using his curveball, a pitch that makes some Yankees look Cerrano-like, more often.
Shields has increased his curveball usage from 13 percent in 2010 to 21 percent this year. The bender, dropping a couple more inches compared to last season, is holding hitters to a .199 Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA), well below the .253 league average. The Yankees, meanwhile, haven't hit curveballs well this season. It's the only pitch against which the club has a below-average team wOBA:
2011 Yankees Team wOBA by Pitch Type (league average in parentheses)
Fastball: .382 (.340)
Sinker: .345 (.343)
Cutter: .323 (.311)
Slider: .302 (.263)
Changeup: .299 (.290)
Splitter: .289 (.279)
Curveball: .248 (.253)
Here are the Yankee hitters who are scuffling against curveballs in 2011:
Brett Gardner, .117
Mark Teixeira, .190
Nick Swisher, .239
Curtis Granderson, .251
Alex Rodriguez, .256
Rodriguez (.344 wOBA vs. curves from 2008-2011) typically crushes curveballs, but that hasn't been the case this season. Gardner (.216), Teixeira (.263), Swisher (.226) and Granderson (.241) have long been jelly-legged against curves.
Shields has tossed his curveball for a strike nearly 70 percent of the time against the Yankees, giving up just one extra-base hit in the process. Look for the pitch to play a prominent role tonight as Tampa continues its late-season playoff pursuit.