In 2014, Los Angeles Angels rookie Matt Shoemaker came out of nowhere and had an excellent big league season, going 16-4, 3.04 ERA, with a 124/24 K/BB ratio in 136 innings. He was 27 years old, never a hot prospect, a former undrafted free agent out of Eastern Michigan University. Shoemaker had pitched in the difficult environment of the Pacific Coast League for two seasons with adequate contextual results, but while a few people saw him as a potential sleeper, nobody expected him to contribute as much as he did last year.
If you are looking for the Matt Shoemaker of 2015, consider San Francisco Giants rookie Chris Heston. Through his first five starts with the Giants this spring, Heston is 2-2 with a sharp 2.51 ERA and a solid 25/7 K/BB in 32 innings.
There are some interesting coincidences here.
***Shoemaker was 27 last year. Heston is 27 this year.
***Shoemaker was undrafted. Heston was a 12th round pick out of East Carolina University in 2009. That's more prominent than being undrafted, but like Shoemaker, Heston wasn't seen as a top prospect despite some success in college. Another "coincidence": Shoemaker went to Eastern Michigan, Heston to East Carolina!
***Shoemaker started regularly in the Pacific Coast League for two seasons, struggling in his first season for Salt Lake (5.65 ERA but with a nice 124/45 K/BB, 4.95 FIP) then improving in his second year, cutting the ERA to 4.64 with a 160/29 K/BB, 4.34 FIP. Heston started regularly in the PCL for two seasons, struggling in his first season for Fresno (5.80 ERA, 97/46 K/BB, 4.98 FIP) but improving in his second year, cutting the ERA to 3.38 with a 125/51 K/BB, 4.50 FIP.
***Shoemaker fanned 7.04 K/9 in his Triple-A career. Heston fanned 7.09. Heston's walk rate was lower, Shoemaker's hit rate higher, but their WHIPs balanced out to being very close (1.48 for Shoe, 1.38 for Heston). Most of that is likely the difference between Salt Lake (a hitter haven with a 108 park factor) and Fresno (a pitchers park by PCL standards with a 97 park factor). Even out the contexts and there is hardly any difference.
***Shoemaker's fastball runs between 86 and 95 MPH averaging 90.3. Heston is generally 86 to 93, averaging 89.5. Both pitchers were often discounted by scouts due to the lack of premium velocity. Shoemaker throws a little harder but Heston gets more sink on the pitch. Both pitchers rely heavily on their secondary pitches, including a splitter, slider, and knucklecurve for Shoemaker and a curve, slider, and change-up for Heston.
***They aren't identical, of course. Heston is much more of a ground ball pitcher than Shoemaker. Heston is a little taller (6-3, 195) and Shoemaker is stockier (6-2, 225). Shoemaker has a better beard although Heston is working on his.
But for all that, they do seem to have a lot in common, background-wise. Both were right-handed command-oriented inning-eaters who don't throw especially hard but throw strikes, know how to pitch, and survived the often-brutal Pacific Coast League with their confidence intact.
Even if neither are a long-term success story, both have exceeded expectations to get where they are even for short-term success. Shoemaker was worth rooting for last year and fantasy owners who took a flier on him were rewarded. Can Heston pull off the same feat this year?
My guess is yes. I suspect Mulder would agree. Scully might take some convincing though.