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Fly The Coop

He sits apart in the far corner of the dugout, cap pulled low over his eyes, alone in his thoughts.

This image of a formerly elite pitcher who has lost the ability to retire big league hitters in many ways represents the futility of this White Sox season. Once again, James Shields on Saturday appeared to be an aimless novice rather than Big Game James, winner of 127 major league games coming into the 2016 season. He lasted only until one out in the third inning at Minnesota as the Sox bowed 11-3.

While wondering just how much more embarrassment Shields will be exposed to by getting the starting nod every five days from manager Robin Ventura, you had a feel the pain of the former ace, who now owns a 5-17 record with an ERA of 6.07 in 28 starts between San Diego and the Sox this season.

The statistics paint a picture of a guy who is desperately trying to find his groove. There have been flashes of his past success, as evidenced by seven "quality starts" (three or less earned runs in a minimum of six innings) in 17 appearances since he joined the White Sox on June 4.

But brace yourself for the results of the other ten outings: 36 innings, 74 hits, 18 home runs, 24 walks, and an ERA of 15.00. It obviously takes far more than the expertise of pitching coach Don Cooper to explain why Shields basically is tossing batting practice in game situations.

Or does it?

Before examining the present season, consider that Shields has never missed a start in 11 big league campaigns. Coming into this year, in each of the last nine seasons, he has accounted for 200 innings pitched - the present-day yardstick for effectiveness as a legitimate "innings eater." Shields' record includes about a hit per inning, but he also has struck out more than three times the hitters that he has walked. He's also yielded home runs at a 1.2 rate per nine innings, far fewer than the astounding 26 he's allowed in just 84 innings with the Sox.

The only explanation is Shields' inability to control the strike zone, get ahead of the hitters, and locate his deliveries where they are least likely to wind up in the bleachers.

Consider Saturday, when Shields faced 16 hitters, throwing first-ball strikes to only six. Brian Dozier and Miguel Sano homered on 1-and-0 and 3-and-0 counts, respectively. When Shields gets behind in the count, trouble lurks.

Shields is not alone when it comes to heretofore effective pitchers who suddenly can't get anyone out. Despite all his zaniness, Carlos Zambrano won 125 games in 11 seasons for the Cubs against just 81 losses when he was traded to Miami prior to the 2012 season. After a 7-10 mark and an ERA of 4.49, Zambrano was finished at age 31.

Okay, so Zambrano was a head case, but consider the situation of Francisco Liriano, who went 14-10 with a 3.62 ERA for the Twins in 2010. The left-hander slumped the next two seasons, including a short stint with the White Sox in 2012 when he walked more than five batters per nine innings while posting a 5.40 ERA.

Granted free agency, Liriano signed with the Pirates and won 16 games in 2013. He dropped his walks per nine innings to 3.5, and again in 2015 he went 12-7 with an ERA of 3.38, when he walked just 3.4 hitters per nine innings. Having better command, getting ahead of hitters, and issuing fewer bases on balls saved Liriano's career.

Without a personal accounting, you can only surmise that coaching, increased confidence, and a change of scenery accounted for Liriano's bounce back.

Then there is the case of Bartolo Colon, who at age 43 continues to pitch effectively for the Mets. Colon has won 230 games, ranking 64th all-time, but between 2006 and 2011, he won just 22 against 31 losses. Colon might differ from Shields in that he wasn't always healthy, and speculation runs rampant about the methods the big guy employed to heal himself.

Regardless, Colon's ability to throw strikes has been the key to the resurrection of his career. Even though he gives up about a hit per inning, the portly gentleman has walked just 1.6 hitters per nine innings this season, helping to account for 12 wins. Only Max Scherzer, another big winner, has thrown a greater percentage of first-ball strikes this season.

Shields' inability to locate his pitches is killing him. He doesn't throw as hard as he used to, but there are plenty of former flamethrowers who learn how to pitch after their fireballer days of youth are over.

If you listen to Hawk Harrelson, Don Cooper is one of the game's elite pitching coaches. He's been handling the Sox staff for 14 seasons. Looking at quality pitchers like Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, Mark Buehrle, Jon Garland, Jose Contreras and Javier Vasquez, his track record looks formidable. But he's also mentored John Danks, Jake Peavy, Jeff Samardzija, Liriano and now Shields, each of whom lost effectiveness under his tutelage. David Robertson converted 39 of 43 saves in 2014 with the Yankees. After blowing his seventh save in 40 chances Sunday, Robertson, by his own admission, has hurt the team that leads the majors with 28 blown saves.

Reliever Matt Albers is another Sox pitcher who has regressed to a point where in his last 20 appearances, he has held the opposition hitless just three times. This from a guy who had recorded 30 scoreless outings dating back to 2015 and his first 10 appearances this year. What happened and why hasn't Cooper figured out a remedy?

After a road trip last week that saw the Sox have a lead in all seven games - three in Detroit where they were swept and four in Minnesota which they split - all the weaknesses, warts and deficits of this team were exposed.

Nate Jones couldn't protect a 3-2 lead in Detroit on Monday, yielding a two-run, eighth-inning homer to Jarrod Saltalamacchia, a .192 hitter It was Jones' ninth blown save. Anthony Ranaudo, a fill-in starter for the disabled Miguel Gonzalez, pitched admirably on Wednesday, exiting in the sixth inning of a 3-3 game. However, relievers Albers and Jacob Turner gave up five runs over the final three innings as the Tigers triumphed 8-4.

Chris Sale had a 2-1 lead Wednesday afternoon when J.D. Martinez's single tied the game in the eighth, and Robertson was nicked for the winning tally in the bottom of the ninth.

The Twins broke their 13-game losing streak Thursday night, pummeling the Sox 8-5 as Quintana had a rare misstep, giving up seven runs in five innings. An outburst on Friday featuring 16 hits supported Carlos Rodon as the Sox won 11-4, but they gave it right back on Saturday in the 11-3 thrashing. In Sunday's 12-inning 13-11 victory, Tim Anderson's two-run double finally subdued the Twins as the game ended with the bases loaded thanks to three walks by the Sox bullpen.

Will Shields take his regular turn on Friday in the opener of a three-game series against the Royals at the soon-to-be-renamed U.S. Cellular Field? First-round draft choice Carson Fulmer's last three starts at Triple-A Charlotte have resulted in 15 innings yielding just one run.

Robin, give him the ball.


Former Bill Veeck bar buddy Roger Wallenstein is our White Sox correspondent. He welcomes your comments.

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