1) Matt Shoemaker, 9/27/1986 - rhsp, AA & AAA
12 wins, 7 losses. 177.1 IP, 3.15 ERA, 160 hits, and 141 K/47 BB. 31 runs saved, 6.1 WAR
Shoemaker put up the best 100+ inning Double A campaign of any Angels' pitching prospect in at least two decades. That's not hyperbole; it also wasn't especially close, as the next best guy trailed Shoemaker by almost two full WAR.*
From May onward, the burly righthander tossed gem after consecutive gem, unstringing AA lineups and propelling the Arkansas Travs to the Texas League championships. His AA numbers were outstanding: 12 wins and 5 losses, a 2.36 ERA, 5 complete games, and 146 K's to 38 BB's. He capped the season with eight dominant, one run innings and ten punch-outs in the playoff opener. The numbers earned him Angels' Minor League Pitcher of the Year and Texas League Pitcher of the Year honors, as well as a trip with Team USA to the World Cup.
Prospect ranking season rolls around, and Shoemaker is nowhere to be seen on anyone's organizational top twenty list. Why is that?
The easy answer is, he's a "non-prospect," an organizational guy who lacks the pedigree and scouting reports that promise major league success. He wasn't even drafted, instead signing with the Angels as a minor league free agent out of Eastern Michigan University in 2008. He was 24 last season, the same age as your average Texas League pitcher, so wasn't young for his league. While his 7.7 K/9 in Double A was quite good, especially given the context**, he fell short of the strikeout per inning threshold that attracts attention from the sabermetric crowd. If anything, performance-based prospect analysts are even more dismissive of his success than folks in the industry.
Texas League managers credited Shoemaker with the best control in the Texas League. Teammate Mike Trout, oddly enough, relayed the most detailed scouting report available on him all year to the OCR's Sam Miller:
Fastball, he's like 93 maybe. Fastball, splitter, pretty good slider, just throws strikes. He goes up there just attacking hitters. I think the fastball's two-seam, and the splitter is definitely his go-to pitch.
Every time he pitched when I was down there I felt good playing behind him. You know he's going to attack the zones, gonna be quick innings and he's going to be good.
Baseball America's Will Lingo, gives a similar blurb on Shoemaker, but ultimately is dismissive of his chances:
He sits 91-93 mph with an average slider, and his best pitch is probably his split-change. He throws strikes with all his pitches and goes right after hitters, and he gets high marks for his makeup. Ultimately, though, he's a back-end of the rotation guy at best.
But he was just so good - so really, really good - in 2011 that I decided to dig a little deeper in search of precedent for his upper minors breakout. Have there been obscure pitchers who took AA by storm, and leveraged that success into successful major league careers? How do Shoemaker's numbers compare to those of the "famous guys" who've cracked big league rosters?
I went back through 20 years worth of Angels' AA affiliate statistics and compiled a list every pitcher who threw at least 100 innings. That gave me 65 names. Twenty-two of those pitchers, or roughly one in three, went on to spend at least a little time with the Angels' major league club.
Here's how Shoemaker stacks up:
First off, AA success didn't generally correlate with major league performance. There's 23 guys who put up ERA's under 4.00 over at least 100 innings with the Angels' AA affiliate over the last 20 years, and only 8 of them - a ratio virtually identical to the one out of three we saw above - went on to the major leagues. Of those guys, only four made positive WAR contributions to the big league Angels. Just two - Ramon Ortiz and John Lackey - pitched more than 170 innings in the majors. In general, above-average AA performance didn't predict major league performance, or even secure a big league audition.
Second, there is the issue of Shoemaker's age. He's not old - your average Texas League pitcher was 23.7 in 2011, and 24.1 in 2010 - but at 24, almost 25, Shoemaker was older than blue-chip-types with obvious upward mobility. In my data set, 34 of the guys who threw more than 100 AA innings over the past couple of decades were 24 or above. Of those, just two - Joe Saunders and Ramon Ortiz - went on to contribute to the Angels as starters. Only two more made it as even serviceable relievers. So, according to age, Shoemaker has a 1 in 9 chance to contribute, and only a 1 in 18 chance of doing so as a starter.
Lastly, because Shoemaker's perfect world outcome is to shore up the back of the Angels' rotation, I widened the search to include arms from outside the organization who have serviceably soaked up major league innings for the Halos over the past few years, guys like Paul Byrd, Jerome Williams, Matt Palmer and Joel Pineiro. The good news is that Shoemaker outperformed them all at the AA level; the bad news is, only Palmer was Shoemaker's age or older at the time. Byrd was 23. Williams and Pineiro were 19 and 20, respectively. While Palmer's career trajectory offers some hope, the rest of those guys don't exactly set the precedent I'm looking for.
But again, I keep returning to the fact is that Shoemaker threw the ball so much better than anyone else. While there isn't much precedent for an older prospect like Shoemaker using a fine AA season as springboard for a long major league career, there also just isn't much precedent for how good he was in 2011.***
In terms of Shoemaker's potential value to the Angels' organization, I think Trevor Bell is a good comp. Being a couple of years younger and having the capacity to reach back for a little more gas may have given the 22 year old Bell more upside than Shoemaker, but not by much. In fact, their arsenals are pretty similar, though in my view Shoemaker's secondary pitches and command compare favorably to those of the current Halos' swingman. If he gets a break, I can envision Shoemaker contributing 2-4 WAR as a marginal 25-man guy over his cost controlled years, with an outside shot at putting up a career year similar to Matt Palmer's 2009.
* Brian Cooper threw the next best season, at 4.3 WAR, back in 1998. He served as a swingman, with generally poor results, for the Halos and Toronto from 1999 to 2002.
**Minor league buffs will point out that Shoemaker's home park, Arkansas' Dickey-Stevens, is among the most pitcher friendly in the minors, and might be warping the numbers even further than the adjustments I made to the WAR calculation. Fair point. However, by most every measure, Shoemaker actually pitched better on the road than at home. Weird. Furthermore, while his 7.7 K/9 rate doesn't appear all of that impressive, it actually ranks 6th out of all of the guys who have thrown 100+ innings in an AA season for the Angels over the last 20 years, although in partial campaigns Frankie Rodriguez (13.3 K/9), Bobby Jenks (11.2 K/9), Jered Weaver (9.6 K/9), Matt Palmer (9.2 K/9 at age 25), Jordan Walden (8.6 K/9), and Ervin Santana (8.3 K/9) all racked up better K/IP numbers. In K/BB ratio, Shoemaker ranks third behind Brian Cooper and Steven Peck. Include the partial seasons, and he's fifth, behind Lackey and K-Rod. The stats suggest that he would have shut down AA lineups anywhere.
***Yes, I glossed over Shoemaker's putrid April in AAA, though the -.2 WAR he put up there is included in the ranking. I have two things to say to that: first, he must have blown the brass away in spring training just to have earned that assignment; second, anyone, and I mean anyone, can look bad pitching 21 innings in Salt Lake.