What Reasons Are There to Not Believe in Matt Shoemaker?

The Angels’ starting rotation has been worth 10.8 WAR. Tyler Skaggs is responsible for 15% of that, and he’s been hurt for a while, and he’s done for this season. Garrett Richards is responsible for another 41% of that, and as of last week he’s out for the season as well, and perhaps a part of next season. The Angels still have the intention of competing for the World Series, but it would appear their pitching hopes might be down to a declining Jered Weaver and a struggling C.J. Wilson. Those guys, and an unknown rookie who turns 28 in a month. Don’t feel bad if you don’t know much about Matt Shoemaker. For a long time there wasn’t a reason to, but it might be Shoemaker who’s now the best starter on the staff.

It’s easy to want to write the guy off. Almost all quality big-leaguers show up and establish themselves sooner than Shoemaker has. He went entirely undrafted out of Eastern Michigan, and he owns a Triple-A ERA of 5.38. Never before was Shoemaker considered much of a prospect, if any kind of prospect, and when people would talk about the Angels’ rotation depth, Shoemaker was among the reasons they’d be nervous. Prior to 2014, Shoemaker wasn’t a meaningful part of the Angels conversation. So: why should that be something we care about now?

Last night, Shoemaker issued two walks against the Marlins. It was as many walks as he’d issued in his previous three starts combined, and he hasn’t issued more than two walks in a game since July 3. Shoemaker, it’s implied, stays around the strike zone.

But he can also stay away from bats. He’s not Carlos Silva, avoiding walks because he lets the ball get put in play within one or two pitches. Shoemaker racked up six strikeouts against Miami. Before that, he had nine in Boston. Before that, six against Texas. Twice this year, Shoemaker has gotten his strikeout count into the double digits.

Let’s say we knew nothing about Matt Shoemaker, other than what he’s done in the majors this year as a starting pitcher. As a starter, he’s thrown 96 innings. Now, 143 starters have thrown at least 75 innings. Shoemaker ranks 13th in K% – BB%, between Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta. He ranks in the upper eighth in terms of K% – BB% against right-handed hitters, and he ranks in the upper fifth in terms of K% – BB% against left-handed hitters. Shoemaker’s contact rate allowed is 75.3%. Let’s take a chunk out of the leaderboard:

Based on that, there’s every reason to want to believe in him. Want to see what he looks like? Here he is, putting away Christian Yelich:

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Here he is, disposing of the possible National League MVP:

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Here he is, disposing of Giancarlo Stanton again later on:

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Never before had Shoemaker really faced major-league opponents. Now he’s faced a lot of them, and he’s gotten most of them out. This is the most significant point of all. All along in a player’s development, we’re guessing as to what he could be in the majors. Shoemaker’s showing what he can be in the majors, in the majors. What people might’ve said about him before feels a lot less important.

For a little additional background, Shoemaker was fairly mediocre in Triple-A in 2012. Yet in 2013, he finished with 160 strikeouts and 29 walks. Clearly, he could miss bats; clearly, he was around the zone. The problem was that he gave up 27 homers, and 212 hits, but Shoemaker made his home in Salt Lake and the hitter-friendly PCL. Organizations agree that it can be difficult to evaluate players in extreme minor-league environments, and now that we get to reflect on things, we can see that Shoemaker ticked off some of the boxes that would allow him to be underrated.

  • He has fairly ordinary fastball velocity, around 90-93
  • He’s a strike-thrower
  • He pitched in hitter-friendly environments
  • His best pitch is a splitter, which is basically the same as saying his best pitch is a changeup

Dave Cameron likes to say around here that strike-throwers in the minors with good changeups are commonly thought too little of. That basically captures the Shoemaker profile, and if you also grant that Shoemaker has probably improved some between 2013 and 2014, then suddenly this isn’t a total shock. If a guy can throw strikes and miss bats in the high minors, why wouldn’t that carry over? If a guy can take a step forward in terms of command between 2012 and 2013, why couldn’t there be another step between 2013 and 2014?

Based on his pitches and usage, Shoemaker can actually be grouped with some interesting peers. Let’s combine two-seam and four-seam fastballs, and then take some data from Brooks Baseball:

Pitcher Fastball% Slider% Curve% Splitter% FA vel. SL vel. CU vel. SP vel.
Matt Shoemaker 50% 18% 10% 22% 91 82 76 85
Hiroki Kuroda 48% 21% 4% 27% 92 84 78 87
Hisashi Iwakuma 48% 20% 4% 27% 90 81 73 85
Masahiro Tanaka 47% 22% 5% 26% 92 84 75 87

Shoemaker’s repertoire grades out as similar to those of the three splitter-heavy Japanese imports. Tanaka’s stuff seems to be the most explosive, and Iwakuma probably has the best splitter command, but if you think about it, both Iwakuma and Kuroda have long been underrated, because their secondary stuff is better than their fastballs. So they don’t really throw their fastballs more than half of the time, which helps to keep hitters off of them. All of these guys have gotten strikeouts while limiting walks. An interesting fact about Shoemaker right now is that he has baseball’s lowest ratio of called strikeouts to swinging strikeouts, but then, Kuroda, Iwakuma, and Tanaka are also near him on the same list. These guys don’t pile up the called strikeouts, because their splitters work so well thrown below the zone.

It seems to me the fear is that Matt Shoemaker might be Joe Blanton. Blanton ran some extraordinary strikeout and walk numbers, but his ERA also underachieved his peripherals and he yielded his share of dingers. That’s similar to what Shoemaker was in Triple-A. But while Blanton threw a lot of a changeup, over his career that pitch was just average. Shoemaker’s splitter is better than +2 runs per 100 pitches. It seems likely that Shoemaker’s best secondary pitch is better than Blanton’s best secondary pitch, so Shoemaker should have a leg up. And Blanton, statistically, was kind of an exception to the usual rules, anyhow.

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. This is the year in which Corey Kluber has a realistic case as a Felix Hernandez challenger for the Cy Young award. Is Matt Shoemaker’s success that crazy, really?




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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


18 Responses to “What Reasons Are There to Not Believe in Matt Shoemaker?”

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  1. Thiago Splitchange says:

    His beard also adds some deception to his delivery, as it simultaneously distracts the hitter and shields his vision of the ball.

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  2. Bill says:

    Fangraphs’ player page has him at 23 years old as of this August. FYI

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  3. reillocity says:

    The thing about change of pace specialists a la Shoemaker is that their batted ball profiles are so poor (loud in terms of general batted ball type and spray direction) that they have to both be on the elite side at the combo of BB% and K% (how those 2 couple relative to SP peers) AND endure a lot of favorable luck on batted balls just to be an average league SP in terms of performance. Those are 2 difficult tricks to pull off independently much less simultaneously. And that’s why I would be skeptical about Shoemaker looking on to 2015 and beyond – the stars just don’t figure to align as well year to year as they have in 2014 MLB play.

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    • Curious says:

      What do you mean by Shoemaker’s poor batted ball profile? It looks pretty average to me

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      • reillocity says:

        I do a thing where I assign run expectancy values to 10 batted ball events (IFFB, OFFB-Pull, OFFB-Center, OFFB-Oppo, LD- Pull, …, GB-Oppo) and grade pitchers vs league peers on that per batter faced. Shoemaker would rank in the 13th percentile on that among 2014 MLB SP(equal or better than 13% of SP at avoiding expected runs on contact) and in the 27th percentile of MiLB SP for 2013-2014 based on his MiLB data.

        Ideally I’d also be breaking down each of those 9 latter categories into “soft” and “hard” subsets, but that all but requires velocity and trajectory data. Change of pace specialists tend to live dangerously, walking a tightrope between the reward of a swing whiff and the risk of an aerial pull.

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        • Paul says:

          How did you come up with the expected runs per kind of contact? Are these values fairly stable among the different starting pitchers? Also, for uses of prediction, do these batt ball profiles correlate strongly from one year to the next?

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        • reillocity says:

          How did you come up with the expected runs per kind of contact? Figure out how the run expectancy changes for every such event of that type per league per season and then compute the mean and SD on that. The approach altogether is comparable to what StatCorner has done with tRA and xRA, only I don’t compute the outs value of each event as they now do with xRA.

          Are these values fairly stable among the different starting pitchers? Also, for uses of prediction, do these batted ball profiles correlate strongly from one year to the next? Since it does include LD terms the ratings will fluctuate if the LD rate varies appreciably from year to year. The tradeoff is that by including LD the method more accurately reflects the pitcher’s performance than the prediction-skewed stats that intentionally ignore LD. GBers tend to have more stable ratings from year to year given fewer balls being put in air. The batted ball rating explains 34% of a pitcher’s overall performance, upon reverse engineering the complete runs avoided per batter results (control 23%, strikeouts 43%). I have a Community Research post in progress that will eventually show how 2013 and 2014 MLB SP grade out on this batted ball rating overall and year vs year (will submit for publishing after season concludes).

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        • Paul says:

          Interesting, and thanks for expounding upon your analysis.

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  4. Josh B says:

    Dave Cameron likes to say around here that strike-throwers in the minors with good changeups are commonly thought too little of.

    Catchy.

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  5. LordAwesome69 says:

    Pet peeve: one player can’t be responsible for any percent of a team’s WAR. What if the Angels’ rotation were worth -3.2, what percent of that would Skaggs be responsible for, 1.6/-3.2 = -50%? If the team WAR were 0, would Skaggs be worth infinity percent of his team’s WAR?

    Since WAR can be negative, that means WAR can be zero, and when you have zero in the denominator, shit goes down. You have to just find a different way to phrase it because the expression “pitcher is worth X% of his team’s WAR” is meaningless.

    WAR: never put it in the denominator.

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    • abreutime says:

      It’s pretty common to convert contributions into the total like that, even if it’s confusing with negative contributors.

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    • zer0grav says:

      If someone’s WAR is a negative number, make it positive. Add all of the pitchers’ WAR together. Then, take the percentage of that for the individual.

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  6. Turk's Teeth says:

    I agree that there’s insufficient focus on the extreme park environments that Angel pitchers suffer through in AAA and A+ ball. The few starting pitchers that do well in Salt Lake City do so in short stints (like Jered Weaver and John Lackey, limited to half seasons there). Anybody who spends 400+ innings in the PCL, with repeat circuits through places like Reno, Albuquerque, and Colorado Springs (all 4500-6000 ft above sea level) is going to ultimately have a crappy ERA and a suspect HR/9. The average runs per game in the PCL hover around 5.1.

    If one looks past the PCL and Cal League stats, you’ll find that Shoemaker had much better outcomes in Class A and AA, where he inhabited a greater diversity of parks, and fewer extreme environments (though the AA home park is something of a pitcher’s paradise).

    Just to say, in every profile of Shoemaker I see the AAA ERA mentioned to suggest the improbability of his transformation. But that should always be qualified as “a 5.38 ERA at high elevations and in the thin air of the PCL’s cruelest pitching environments.” Much as Jeff does here.

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  7. Sour Bob says:

    “What Reasons Are There to Not Believe in Matt Shoemaker?”

    I dunno. Does he split infinitives? That drives me crazy.

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  8. Johnny Ringo says:

    Reminds me of the Kyle Hendricks situation we have with the Cubs, only that Kyle has dominated every level so far, including the big leagues.

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