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Matt Shoemaker: The Gift that Keeps On Giving

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This was originally a "trade Matt Shoemaker because" post, but Unipony hit that one out of the park this morning. Now this is a "Why Matt Shoemaker is good again" post, good for whiling away the hours before the Bearded One takes the mound tonight.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

For the past month and a half, Shoemaker has been dominant, locked in, unshakeable. I've always loved the guy, and honestly, his starts are the only Angels' games that I currently go out of my way to catch. Even before his May renaissance, I wanted to see the Cobbler compete, to witness our Undrafted's ongoing efforts to adjust. His struggles are our struggles. His victories, our victories. And lately, we've had a lot more victories. For Halos' fans, the dude's been a gift, manna from heaven.

And his sudden ace-like status could be a windfall for the Angels' system. His present value climbs with each start. What would a competitive team in need of a boost—say, the Giants—pony up to add the suddenly Kershaw-like Shoemaker to their playoff rotation? Given the state of the Angels—cluster fucked as far as the eye can see—you have to ask that question: Could the Halos pull in a significant haul this July by sending Shoemaker packing? And if you could, don't you have to do it?

Two years ago—even a year ago—questioning Shoe's future with the Halos would have hit me like a sucker punch to the gut. Two things have changed for me: first, it's now clear that the Angels' window of contention is closed barring serious overhaul. This winter the FO will no doubt trot out the multitude of injuries to excuse another offseason of inactivity (despite the fact that the replacements have often outplayed the first string), but it seems clear as day that the Angels lack the athleticism and upside to compete. Second, I'm back to playing fantasy baseball, which means I'm paying more attention to good baseball across the league, and would love to see the Cobbler put a quality club on his back and gut through some October starts. I'm just a whore for fun baseball. And, while Shoe looks like a good bet to contribute now, he's not a great bet to be a big part of the next good/fun Halos' club, despite not becoming a free agent until 2021.

Of course, a month and a half ago Shoemaker was a dumpster fire, so there's that. He was no great shakes last year, either. He's twenty-nine and pitching in only his third major league season. The track record is uneven, unprecedented. Any club sniffing around is going to have to come up with some pretty rosy answers to some pretty obvious questions: How do you explain his recent success as anything other than fluke?  Can he perform like this October? And next year? And the year after that?

In the near term, at least, Shoemaker presents as stud. Everyone knows that he's changed his pitch mix entirely this past month and half and has seen success. Beyond the new game plan, however, the stuff is better. Like, much better. And that correlates with mechanical adjustments that are boosting his vertical release point up to 2014 levels. You know, back when he was the man. Check out the data below:

Shoe_Release Point Brooks Baseball

I'm no pitching coach, but it's hard not to feel giddy looking at that 2016 spike. Gubi claims it's the result of a more pronounced hip turn (or something) but the end product is Shoe remaining taller at his release. He's good again, and there seems to be a physical, non-substance-related reason for it!

With the mechanical adjustment comes a substantially better fastball. Shoe's 29 now, but he's throwing with more zip than at any point in his Pitch FX-captured career:

Shoe Velo Brooks Baseball

There’s presently a lot more 94, and lot less 89. The fastball has more vertical "life" too. Check out the climb in four seamer "rise" below:

Shoe_Movement Brooks Baseball

The increase in velocity and vertical life in his fastball is the difference between opposing hitters rocking a 43% LD rate (seriously – that’s what lefties did to him this April), and whiffing 14% of the time up in the zone. Behold, Shoe’s fastball use and whiff rate, with April on the left, and his very impressive May/June on the right:

Shoe_FB Brooks Baseball

He's locating up in the zone more often with the heater, and hitters aren't catching up with it. Shoe has turned his most significant liability as a starting pitcher—a meh, straight fastball—into ace-like gas.

And of course, there's his early-May shift to pitching backwards, leaning liberally on the splitter in any count, and throwing fewer fastballs and sliders while ditching the knuckle curve altogether. You can read about it at fangraphs here and here. The gist is that he's now throwing his splitter 44% of the time (hat tip, Jeff Sullivan) after spending three years working to decrease his dependence on the pitch.

The pitch-mix shift also makes for a fascinating human interest story, given that his previous adjustments—more significant incorporation of a two-seamer, the addition of a knuckle curve as a fourth pitch—were just plain ordinary. To remain a factor in the big leagues, he's tried to diversify his arsenal in pretty conventional ways. After an abysmal 2016 start, he was sent down to the minors explicitly to work on those conventional approaches. But when he came back? It looks like he just said F-it, and began to pitch each turn through the lineup as if it were his epic 2014 playoff start all over again, when, fresh off the DL, the splitter was the only thing he had working. It wasn't the obvious move—hitters had slugged .427 against the splitter in 2015—but it was a shift back to his last period of sustained success. And it's working.

So his recent improvements are impressive, measurable beyond BABIP, and don't cost much in terms of cash. He doesn't become a free agent until 2021, and while I wouldn't bet that he's in for an extended peak, he should be useful for at least a couple of years. There's a lot of surplus value here, and you'd think that the Halos would want to explore cashing in.

Thanks to Brooks Baseball for all of the nifty graphics.