Matt Shoemaker is good. The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim righthander has a 3.56 ERA and a 8.86 K/9 in 103-and-two-thirds innings. His record stands at 12-4 and he flirted with a no-hitter in his last start.
He’s also a good story. A 27-year-old rookie — he turns 28 next month — Shoemaker spent six seasons in the minor leagues after being signed as a non-drafted free agent in 2008. Never ranked among the Angels top prospects, he had a losing record and a 5.38 ERA in 69 Triple-A starts.
Earlier this week I asked Shoemaker for the reason behind his breakthrough. His answer was simple and humble. “A lot of it is just my love for the game,” said Shoemaker. “I want to keep playing as long as I can, and a lot of hard work goes into that. It’s a blessing to be here.” Pressed to elaborate, he owned up to improved command.
Shoemaker has solid command of five pitches: two- and four-seam fastballs, a slider, a knuckle curve and a splitter. He worked on a cutter two years ago, but ultimately shelved it due to a lack of consistency.
His irregular path to the big leagues began in suburban Detroit. Shoemaker told me he played travel ball for the Detroit Braves/Michigan Braves from ages 12-15. On multiple occasions he played against Zach Putnam – now with the White Sox — who grew up in nearby Ann Arbor. Despite excelling in the youth ranks, he wasn’t on the fast track.
“Coming out of high school, I was good, but not that good,” said Shoemaker. “I didn’t get drafted. I wanted to go to the University of Michigan – I grew up a U of M fan — but I got a better scholarship offer from Eastern Michigan and ended up going there. I didn’t get drafted out of college either.
“I was a red-shirt junior and thought I’d be going back to school for my fifth-year senior year. But in early August I got a phone call from the Angels, from [area scout] Joel Murie, saying, “Hey, we’d like to sign you if you’re willing.’ A week later, I signed.”
According to Shoemaker, signing with the Angels was “a fairly easy decision, but at the same time a little difficult.” He’d earned a Bachelor’s of Business Administration and had his sights set on an MBA. With his 22nd birthday looming, he discussed the pros and cons with his family and opted for pro ball.
There were bumps along the road, including a 5.03 ERA in 2010. A strong 2011 season in Double-A looked like a turning point, but 2012 and 2013 were rocky. Pitching in Triple-A, he allowed 441 hits in 361 innings. The former Eastern Michigan Eagle had seemingly plateaued one level below his dream. But he wasn’t about to give up.
“Going through struggles makes you better as a person, and as a player,” said Shoemaker. “I had determination and was going to keep playing. My wife and I never put a time frame on it. It wasn’t ‘Let’s give it five years” or ‘Let’s give it 10 years.’ It was more, ‘Let’s see where God takes us.’ I kept working hard and that work paid off.”
James Ramsey is no longer buried behind a glut of talented outfielders in the St. Louis Cardinals system. It is now up to the 24-year-old former first-round pick to prove himself in a new organization. Ramsey was acquired by the Cleveland Indians in exchange for Justin Masterson at last month’s trade deadline.
Ramsey was hitting .300 with a .916 OPS in Double-A when he was dealt. The Indians assigned him to Triple-A Columbus, and he’s barely missed a beat. Rebounding from a slow start – he went 2 for 21 in his first five games – the left-handed-hitting Florida State product has upped his slash line to .282/.356/.474.
Ramsey was surprised by the deal, but not too surprised. You can bet that MLB Trade Rumors gets plenty of traffic from inside clubhouses in late July. Players can ignore their iPhones, but they can’t escape the chatter.
“In the weeks leading up to the trade deadline your name is popping up all over the place,” Ramsey told me. “I was trying to just go about my business, but some of my teammates were taking stock in it. There was a lot of, ‘Hey, I read this, I read that.’”
Before long, Ramsey was reading his name in the transaction column. But first there were phone calls and travel arrangements to deal with. There were also emotions.
“Once it became reality it was a matter of what, when and where,” said Ramsey. “We were on the road, so I was at a hotel. [The phone calls] went farm director to GM to GM to farm director, I was excited to find out where I’d be reporting. The Cardinals had been trying to get me to Triple-A all year, so Columbus was a realistic nesting place for me.”
Ramsey flew to Columbus and went directly from the airport to the ballpark. He arrived 10 minutes before the first pitch, took a physical, filled out paperwork, and was in the dugout by the third inning. It was a new beginning for the young outfielder, and at the same time a goodbye.
“There were a lot of emotions wrapped into one,” admitted Ramsey. “There are two sides to a trade. There is the leaving side, because you invest a lot in your relationship with your teammates, and with the organization overall. I have no bad taste in my mouth about that at all – everything the Cardinals did was first class. The other half is coming to Cleveland and getting a fresh start with an opportunity to get to the big leagues. I’m really excited about that.”
The Texas Rangers can’t help but be excited about their July 23 deal for Jake Thompson. The 20-year-old righthander was acquired from the Tigers, along with Corey Knebel, in exchange for Joakim Soria. Detroit’s second-round pick two years ago, Thompson profiles as a potential front-line starter at the big-league level.
A native of Rockwall, Texas, Thompson features a four-pitch mix that includes a low-to-mid-90s fastball and a plus slider. In 118 innings between high-A and Double-A, he has a record of 9-5 and a 3.19 ERA. He’s striking out exactly one batter per inning. According to Josh Boyd, the Rangers have had their eyes on him for some time.
“As an amateur player, in our backyard here in Dallas/Fort Worth, we had quite a bit of history with him,” said Boyd, the Rangers director of professional scouting. “That track record of information certainly helped attract us to Jake as we targeted young starting pitching prospects. Our pro staff did a thorough job evaluating him leading up to the deadline. They really saw growth from him early in the season and he’s continued to make a positive impression with [Double-A] Frisco.”
Thompson was barely 100 innings into his professional growth phase when I first talked to him 12 months ago. When I caught up to him recently, he said he’s “pretty much the same guy, just one year older.” That’s not entirely true. There have been changes, and some have come since joining the Rangers.
He’s improved his curveball, but the biggest developments have come with regard to his fastball. Last August, Thompson told me he could locate his slider better than his fastball. He feels that’s no longer the case. Thompson said his slider command is comparable to last year, while his fastball command is “very good, considering where I was coming from.” He’s also throwing a lot more four-seamers.
“When I was with the Tigers, there was a big emphasis on two-seams,” said Thompson. “They liked me sinking the ball. Over here, the Rangers are more four-seam heavy. They like me to show a little more velo. They basically sat me down and said, ‘We want to see your four-seam. Your two-seam has more movement, but it’s a little softer and hitters can get the bat head out easier. You have some life on your four-seam and it’s 93-95.”
Pitch preference isn’t the only difference Thompson has encountered. The righty said the Tigers and Rangers are “very different in their strength-and-conditioning departments” and that their arm care programs aren’t identical. He said the Tigers have you do arm care after your bullpens and your starts, while it is “three or four times a week” with the Rangers. The Tigers also don’t run quite as much, or quite as hard.
Thompson learned about his change of address via social media following a strong outing for Double-A Erie.
“My entire start I could see [Tigers GM] Dave Dombrowski sitting in the fifth row behind the plate,” explained Thompson. “Later that night I was eating with a couple of my teammates when I got a text from a reporter up in Michigan. He said, ‘Hey, I heard a rumor that you and Corey Knebel just got traded to the Rangers. Is that true?’ I hadn’t heard anything, so I said no. Then I started checking Twitter. In about five minutes it was made official. The Tigers and Rangers called me right after that.”
Jeff Luhnow spoke at last weekend’s saberseminar in Boston. As you might expect, the Houston Astros general manager had a lot of interesting things to say. One line in particular stood out to me. Addressing the challenges of implementing new ideas, Luhnow said – tongue in cheek – “OK, I’m the GM. I can do whatever I want.”
Later that day, I asked Luhnow about the line. How much leeway does a GM actually have? If he wants organizational policy X, can he simply announce organization policy X and watch everything fall neatly into place?
“It’s a lot easier said than done and something every general manager struggles with,” said Luhnow. “Everybody deals with that in their own way, but in no way is it a dictatorship. You have to realize you have large numbers of people working in baseball operations. You have coaches, trainers, scouts, front office personnel. You also have the media scrutinizing everything you do and your fans to worry about. There is also your ownership group.”
Hierarchy exists in most every business, and the buck always stops with the man [or woman] with ultimate control of the purse strings. From Finley to Steinbrenner and beyond, owners have dictated moves made by GMs. By and large, Luhnow has been lucky in that regard with Jim Crane.
“Every club has a unique situation,” said Luhnow. “The opportunity that was available to me was to essentially start with a blank page and design from scratch – how the front office was to be organized and how we could execute our strategy. We probably have more degrees of freedom than other front offices have had coming into a situation.”
Freedom is one thing; innovation and buy-in are others. The Astros’ analytic approach and willingness to think outside the box is embraced by the sabermetric community. But as Luhnow alluded, Baseball Ops is an amalgam. Not every instructor in the system will inherently embrace extreme shifts or leverage charts.
“It’s not like a manufacturing line where you can change the product and quickly get feedback from the market,” explained Luhnow. “You rely on human beings to do these things, then they rely on other human beings to do things on the field. There are a lot of people involved, so mandates don’t really work very well.”
Luhnow and his staff have been proactive in educating on-the-field personnel throughout the system. He feels that explaining the methods behind what might be seen as madness is crucial to implementing new ideas. Without that, there won’t be adequate buy-in.
“We’ve taken the approach of working with everyone and demonstrating,” said Luhnow. “We’re giving examples and showing the results. Our hitting and pitching coordinators meet with the players and talk about why we’re doing things. For instance, Carlos Correa knows exactly why we’re doing the things we’re doing with the infield. When he gets to Houston he’s going to be able to turn double plays from the second base side, even though he’s a shortstop, and he’s going to understand why he was positioned where he was.”
Brent Strom is a good fit for the Astros. The club’s pitching coach not only has a wealth of experience at both the minor-league and big-league levels, he’s involved with Ron Wolforth’s Texas Baseball Ranch. An expert on mechanics, Strom is a 65-year-old pitching guru with no shortage of fresh ideas.
Strom has strong opinions on velocity. He loves it – every pitching coach does – but he also understands that not all 100-mph fastballs are created equal. The subject came up when I asked him about Mike Foltynewicz last weekend. A 22-year-old flamethrower, Foltynewicz made his big-league debut earlier this month.
“Collin McHugh‘s 91-mph fastball plays very well because he has great extension.” Strom told me. “By extension I mean he’s close to home plate at release. Foltynewicz doesn’t have that right now. He may throw 100, but it doesn’t play as well as some other pitcher’s velocity. We found that with a young man we had when I was in St. Louis. Maikel Cleto threw 100 and he’s been traded [or claimed on waivers] four or five times.
“That radar gun is just a number. I’ve always believed hitters hit what they see or what they don’t see. There are certain guys whose fastballs play better than what the velocity reads and there are certain guys whose fastballs don’t play as well as the velocity reads. If Foltynewicz can get better extension throwing with that velocity, then we’re going to have something special.”
The Astros were at Fenway Park at the time, and Strom cited a Red Sox pitcher as a prime example of velocity playing above the radar readings. He then segued into the importance of location, albeit not in a way you might expect.
“Koji Uehara throws 88 mph, but ask a hitter what his 88 looks like,” said Strom. “It looks faster, and he pitches up in the zone. You combine [Strom held one of his hands up by his chest] with [down by the knees] – with his fastball and his split – and hitters end up swinging in the middle.
“I firmly believe Oakland is good because they have a brilliant general manager who understands pitchers try to pitch down in the zone. What do Oakland’s hitters do? They go out and get everybody who has a lift swing. They hit fewer ground balls than anybody in baseball. They hit into fewer double plays than anybody in baseball. We’ve been sold a bill of goods that down is always where to go. There are certain guys you want to pitch up.”
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