The Los Angeles Angels might not be in the playoffs this year if not for the surprise contribution of 27-year-old rookie starter Matt Shoemaker, currently scheduled to start Game Two of the ALDS against the Kansas City Royals on Friday. Shoemaker made 20 starts and seven relief appearances this year, going 16-4 with a 3.04 ERA in 136 innings, boasting an excellent 124/24 K/BB ratio. Shoemaker wasn't on many prospect lists pre-season, so let's explore what happened here.
Shoemaker was a pitcher at Eastern Michigan University from 2006 through 2008. He closed as a sophomore in '07 and collected 14 saves, then moved into the rotation as a junior, posting a 4.47 ERA in 87 innings, but allowing 101 hits with a 44/29 K/BB ratio. He was hittable and didn't strike people out; not surprisingly, he wasn't drafted. The Angels saw something they liked, however, and signed him as a minor league undrafted free agent.
After a solid season in the Low-A and High-A bullpens in 2009 (67/24 K/BB in 81 innings, 3.30 ERA), he moved into a starting role at High-A Rancho Cucamonga in 2010. His ERA was high at 4.93 but his K/BB was much better at 119/39 in 122 innings. The California League environment is tough and Shoemaker put up better numbers in the more neutral environment of Arkansas in the Texas League in 2011, posting a 2.48 ERA with a 129/35 K/BB in 156 innings.
I saw him pitch once for Arkansas and I liked his splitter, so I wrote up this report for the 2012 Baseball Prospect Book:
I wrote earlier that Garrett Richards was the best pitcher in the Texas League not named Shelby Miller. I think that’s true in terms of scouting, but in terms of stats Matt Shoemaker certainly had a great year, leading the league in ERA, ranking second in wins, and posting an excellent K/BB ratio. Shoemaker isn’t in Richards’ class as a prospect, but he bears watching. He was signed as an undrafted free agent out of Eastern Michigan in 2008. His fastball isn’t special in the 88-92 range, but he has a solid splitter, and he throws strikes. He has yet to establish himself in Triple-A and may be a Quadruple-A type, but there’s some chance he could be a fifth starter or long reliever. Grade C.
Shoemaker moved up to Triple-A Salt Lake in 2012 and had some issues with a 5.65 ERA. However, he continued to eat innings and throw strikes, posting a 124/45 K/BB in 177 innings. However, he gave up 229 hits. I didn't see him in person that year and the only report I had from PCL observers was negative, so I didn't put him in my 2013 book.
2013 was better: 4.64 ERA, 160/29 K/BB in 184 innings. He still gave up 212 hits, but he also threw five shutout innings in a single major league cup-of-coffee start. The splitter looked quite good indeed, so I restored him to the book for 2014 and wrote this:
Shoemaker was signed as an undrafted free agent from Eastern Michigan University in 2008. He’s never been considered a hot prospect, is already 27 years old, and has given up a lot of hits in Triple-A, but when the Angels needed someone to make a spot start in mid-September, Shoemaker stepped up with five shutout innings. This was enough for him to keep his 40-man roster spot through the winter. Shoemaker comfortably throws strikes with his 89-94 MPH fastball, slider, and splitter. He’s not overpowering but changes speeds quite well and considering the environment at Salt Lake, he’s held his own. Although his margin for error isn’t great, Shoemaker has a shot at being a useful fifth starter or long reliever. Grade C.
This was among the most optimistic reports you'd see on Shoemaker pre-season, and even this turned out to be an underestimate. He was a lot more than a useful fifth starter and long reliever this year.
So, is this a fluke or is it repeatable?
Jeff Sullivan at Fangraphs produced this article in late August, breaking down the quality of his pitch repertoire and concluding that Shoemaker is probably for real. I agree with Sullivan's take. His conclusion:
Matt Shoemaker isn’t some proven, established veteran. The league is still getting used to seeing him, and we’re still getting used to thinking about him. He wasn’t on the radar before, and for all I know he might not be on the radar in a year. But just based on what Shoemaker has done in the major leagues, there’s basically every reason to think he’s for real as a quality starter. Given his history, that’s a surprise, but surprises happen all the time, especially when there exist certain minor-league blind spots.
Two key points I take away from Shoemaker's history:
***Note what he was doing in college; he was NOT particularly successful while starting at Eastern Michigan; indeed, his strikeout rate (usually a key indicator of future success even for finesse pitchers) was quite low. It got better in pro ball as he refined his splitter and slider.
***Sullivan comments on this but it is worth emphasizing: park and league effects at Rancho Cucamonga and Salt Lake masked Shoemaker's potential by inflating his ERA and hit rates. When he was in neutral environments (Cedar Rapids and Arkansas), the surface stats were much better.
One of the lessons I learned during the Prospect Retrospective Project: even when you think you've adjusted for an extreme park/league effect, you probably haven't adjusted enough. Shoemaker shows that this can be important for pitchers as well as hitters.