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Closing Time: James Shields feeds the gopherWith Felix Hernandez(notes) and James Shields(notes) on the marquee for Thursday night, it was supposed to be a pitcher's duel. It turned into Seattle batting practice.

While King Felix was missing bats during his seven-inning stint (5 H, 1 R, 2 BB, 11 K), Shields was pitching to contact — loud contact. The Mariners stroked four homers off Shields en route to eight runs (seven earned) over four innings. The right-hander's ERA saw a .62 jump by the end of the night.

While a four-homer game from the Mariners goes right in the fluke file, the gopher ball is an occupational hazard with Shields. He allowed 29 of them in 2009 and 34 of them last year. This also raises the issue of HR/FB rate — Shields has been trending over the league average in that stat in five of his six big-league seasons. To get a fair gage of where he's at, I'd say we need to judge him against his own established career norms, not the league-wide average.

The Shields case also raises a debate about the worthiness of xFIP — a peripherally-suggested ERA that installs a league-average HR/FB rate. This type of stat is always going to be kind for gopher-friendly pitchers like Shields, as it basically absolves them from blame for their biggest weakness. Shields has a 4.13 ERA for his career, but it trims to 3.69 if you thrown him through the xFIP car wash. That's great if you can assume that Shields will become an average HR/FB guy at some point in his career, but that's not an assumption I'm willing to make.

The other side of the coin in the xFIP argument is a guy like Matt Cain(notes). The San Francisco righty has a career HR/FB rate of 7.0, well under the league-wide mean. Because of this, xFIP doesn't believe in Cain: his career ERA is 3.48, but it pushes to 4.32 in the xFIP model.

We know avoiding home runs is very important for pitchers, and we also know that a heavy ground-ball rate is the best way to get that done. But do pitchers have control over what percentage of their fly balls go over the fence? It's a ticklish subject. There are plenty of SABR-friendly analysts who don't feel pitchers can control this aspect of the game, but you'll occasionally find someone who doesn't go along with that line of thinking (two-percenter Jonah Keri, for one, seems distrustful of the prevailing FB/HR logic).

Back to Shields, what's the plan for him going forward? I'd quietly see if you can shop his still-impressive surface stats. The homer-heavy profile is always going to be a part of him, methinks, and with weather warming and the AL East looming (Yankees, Red Sox, that Bautista fellow), I can't see how his ERA is going to stay below 3. From this point forward, I'd put his ERA over/under in the 3.80 range — not bad, mind you, but I bet you can find someone to value him higher than that. You might not agree, of course. It's a game of opinions, and without disagreement, we wouldn't find this roto thing very much fun.

While you weigh the worthiness of Shields in the summertime, let's get a check in with some of the other Thursday sandlot action:

• Neftali Feliz(notes) got the handshake in Cleveland, working a scoreless inning, but it was far from a smooth landing. Two of the four batters he faced rocketed the ball, but both of those shots landed in friendly outfield gloves. You probably can get a full closer-price for Feliz in a lot of leagues, and I'd look into that if you can.

• Let's keep a close eye on Jason Isringhausen(notes) in New York, who's in the midst of a quietly-effective season (2.89, 1.13, 16 K in 18.2 innings; he got the win Thursday). The Mets don't have any closer controversy so long as Francisco Rodriguez is healthy — and he's been terrific in 2011 — but it's very possible the team will look to move K-Rod if and when the club falls out of contention. In a lot of leagues Izzy is simply a name to monitor, not a player to pick up today, but this is a bullpen we all should be watching closely. (One significant roadblock to a possible Rodriguez deal is the gigantic vesting option that kicks in if he finishes 54 games in 2011. He's at 21 now. But that doesn't mean a deal can't get done; clubs often find ways of sharing the financial burden when an albatross changes teams.)

• Are the Pirates going to give Xavier Paul(notes) an extended run in the outfield? He went 4-for-5 at Citi Field with three runs and a couple of steals (he was caught on a third attempt), and he had two hits and two RBIs in the prior game. The Dodgers never gave Paul much of a shot, but in Pittsburgh, it's always open auditions.

Closing Time: James Shields feeds the gopherSpeed Round: Aubrey Huff clocked three homers as the Giants outslugged the Cardinals. Colby Rasmus drove in six on the other side, which even Tony La Russa had to be impressed by. … Carlos Peguero(notes) clouted (yes, clouted) two of the homers off Shields, not that he's an up-and-comer. He's at .190/.227/.429 for the year, with three walks against 23 strikeouts. … Brett Lawrie(notes) will probably be called up Friday by the Blue Jays, which is why Andy Behrens's phone vibrates every 15 minutes. … Matt Joyce had two hits in the Pacific Northwest, including his tenth homer. … What's in the Minneapolis water these days? Jim Thome(notes) and Jason Kubel(notes) are the latest to go on the DL there. … Jayson Werth(notes) took a pitch off the elbow at Arizona and might miss some time this weekend; officially, he's day-to-day. Otherwise, it was a happy night for the Nats; Michael Morse(notes) collected four more hits while Jordan Zimmermann(notes) quieted the Snakes over seven strong innings (1 R, 4 K, tight slider). … So much for the Trevor Plouffe(notes) experiment. He was returned to Triple-A after a .200/.310/.383 trial. … Joakim Soria(notes) did fine in a pitch-to-contact stint, working two clean innings in a mop-up appearance. He didn't have any walks or strikeouts. … It's a good thing Alcides Escobar(notes) can pick it in the field, because he's been an absolute zero at the plate for the Royals (.208/.244/.244). He's stolen five bases in nine attempts. … Daisuke Matsuzaka(notes) is probably headed for Tommy John surgery, which essentially will be the capper to his Boston career. The Hub exhales. … Scott Rolen(notes) continues to play through a sore shoulder. … Chone Figgins(notes) returned to the Seattle lineup and went 1-for-4 with two strikeouts. He scored one run, drove in one. Figgins batted eighth in the order, while Brendan Ryan(notes) (1-for-4) kept the No. 2 slot.


Image courtesy Associated Press

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