(13) Matt Shoemaker, 26, rhsp. AAA. 3.3 WAR, 8.3 runs saved. 184.1 IP, 4.64 ERA, 160 K/29 BB
It's May 1st, 2014. C.J. Wilson has been on the shelf for a week with a stiff forearm. However,
Mulder is going strong everyone remains calm gallows humor is rampant but hope remains. Halolinks comes up that morning (thanks Jim!), but it's bad news: Weaver is going to skip a start due to a balky back. We all freak out.
Damn. Who's next on the depth chart?
Matt Shoemaker, a big, burly righty, is the current number 6/7 guy. Signed as a minor league free agent back in 2008, he's outperformed 95% of the 1500+ guys drafted that year. He made his major league debut on September 22nd last year, tossing five innings of scoreless ball while fanning five. His fastball parked at 90-91, peaking at 94 with decent rising life, which set up his plus splitter beautifully (5 swinging strikes). He threw two breaking balls, a low-80's slider that he employed frequently, especially to righties, and a mid 70's curveball that he added last year to give lefties a third speed differential to worry about. He threw that curveball just twice in his MLB debut, the first to kick off his second trip through the Mariners' lineup, and the second as a get-me-over offering to Kendrys Morales in his second AB. He completes the package with one of the best beards in professional sports, worthy of it's own promotional night.
In his MLB debut, 65% of Shoemaker's pitches went for strikes, which comes in just a hair beneath his 66% Triple A rate. Among big league pitchers, only eight threw strikes at a higher rate throughout the season. Eight! Amped up as he was in his pro debut last fall, his only visible reaction to events was a flash of anger when he walked Raul Ibanez. Anger that he, Matt Shoemaker, FIP-machine, lost ownership of the strike zone momentarily against one of the most experienced hitters in the major leagues.
To truly appreciate Shoemaker, you have to look at his aggregate work. For the second season running, he led all minor league pitchers in innings pitched. He was seventh in the minors in strikeouts. Yet 358 other minor league starters walked more guys than he did, despite all of those innings. He was ruthlessly efficient, averaging 3.44 pitches per plate appearance, which ranked sixth lowest among all Triple A starters. His 5.52 K/BB ratio was tops in AAA by a wide margin. On the other hand, he gave up the second most hits of any pitcher in the minor leagues. He gave up the second most homeruns of any pitcher in the minors (trailing only teammate Barry Enright). Beyond the sterling K/BB, the other rate stats aren't going to blow anyone away. He's a young Joe Blanton, back when our loveable punching bag still possessed a legit MLB fastball. The one that the Halos thought they were buying when they signed him as an FA.
Mentioning Blanton kicks off of the "but" part of the write-up. In case you haven't guessed already, my bias swings heavily in Shoemaker's direction: I'm a fan, could watch him pitch all day, and have a faith-tinged opinion that he's going to contribute. I think it's tragic that so many of the Angels' top prospect lists this offseason leave him off entirely (though Sickels tagged him!), because he's a useful roster asset right now - with some upside even - while so much of the Halos' system that makes these lists are long shots to become even that. Yet we must acknowledge the 'but.'
On paper, Shoemaker's FB looks just fine, as in MLB average. It rarely drops below 90, hits 94 mph a few times a game, and has good "rising" life. He pitches mostly with a four seamer, but can ride it to his arm-side as a two seamer, giving him a seven-inch spectrum of horizontal movement. That all looks pretty decent, in the abstract. But hitters - lefties most of all - see the heater well, making consistently solid contact, especially as he runs through the line-up for the second and third time. In his MLB debut, the FB did not induce one swinging strike. He only threw the pitch 51% of the time, leaning heavily on his splitter (29%) and slider (17%) instead. He did the same thing against stacked spring training line-ups a year ago, so he has a clear idea of what his strengths are against major league hitters, and plays to them.
Given the present lack of pitching depth, he's likely to get plenty of MLB starts in 2014, which will give the league an extended look at him and a chance to adjust. Establishing his fastball sufficiently so that his good off speed stuff plays up will be Shoemaker's biggest challenge. His command and the life on his fastball give him a shot at inducing swinging strikes above the zone, but he rarely goes upstairs now. Maybe he's more aggressive with high heat next year. Maybe he tries to expand the strikezone in other ways, exchanging some efficiency for swinging strikes. Maybe he continues to mix in more two-seamers and cutters. Maybe he takes his already plus command to the next level. This is a guy who's overcome every baseball-related obstacle he's faced in his career, so how he chooses to attack this particular issue will be fascinating.
Back in 2011, when the Halos' farm was still considered a mid-tier system, Shoemaker led all Angels' minor leaguers with 6.1 WAR. I was curious about how many 24 year old "organizational arms" broke out in Double A and wound up being useful starters in the majors, so did a little digging into organizational history. The answer did not inspire much confidence: there is no clear precedent for Matt Shoemaker, successful MLB starter. I have no empirical grounds to declare optimism.
I just think he'll figure it out.