With a whopping total of five big-league innings under his belt prior to 2014, it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say the vast majority of baseball fans outside of the greater Los Angeles area hadn’t a clue Matt Shoemaker ever existed. After all, he is the only Eastern Michigan University product currently playing in the bigs (here’s the entire list of alumni, if you’re curious). But trust me, Shoemaker very much exists. Just ask Oakland Athletics skipper Bob Melvin.
On Sunday, the 27-year-old right-hander tossed seven innings of shutout baseball that included seven punchouts and no walks, helping his Los Angeles Angles strengthen their foothold on the American League West to 4.5 games and complete a four-game sweep of Melvin’s free-falling Athletics. Oakland’s skipper was tossed from the affair for arguing balls and strikes with home plate ump Gerry Davis — conduct likely brought about by his team’s “embarrassing” and “pathetic” play.
The outing meanwhile improved Shoemaker’s season earned run average to 3.14 and fielder-independent pitching to an almost identical 3.25 over 117.2 innings of work between Mike Scioscia’s rotation and bullpen. He’s been inconceivably good during his most recent eight outings (48.1 IP), however, pitching to a 1.12 ERA and 0.83 WHIP (best among qualified AL starters) and limiting the opposition to a .461 on-base-plus-slugging (lowest among AL pitchers) since July 26.
Did I mention he’s strung together 23.1 innings of shutout baseball and became the first Angels pitcher to log three consecutive starts with seven innings of scoreless baseball since Nolan Ryan in 1976? If I didn’t, my mistake.
Scioscia spoke highly of Shoemaker — his most valuable starter not named Garrett Richards since the All-Star break — to Helene Elliott of the Los Angeles Times after the victory Sunday afternoon, saying, “when he’s on the mound he thinks he’s Nolan Ryan.” Is Shoemaker the next Nolan Ryan? Probably not. But has Shoemaker made (pun not intended) progress toward becoming a future staple in Scioscia’s rotation? Yes.
It all starts with his approach early in counts.
Predictability was a problem for Shoemaker earlier in the season, specifically on the first pitch of plate appearances. From April through July 21 — when 83.6% of his innings were spent in Los Angeles’ rotation — opponents teed off on his offerings to the tune of a .345 batting average, .690 slugging percentage and home-run-to-fly-ball ratio of 21.4%. This, as we can see from the second image above, was a product of the fact that Shoemaker commanded his stuff down the center of the zone; essentially, hitters picked up on the fact that he was spot-on in his command on the first pitch.
Shoemaker’s latest 48.2 innings have yielded vastly different results. Over that span, opponents have hit just .167 with a .222 slugging percentage against him in 0-0 counts, and have yet to clear the fences on one occasion. The reason? Less predictability. The righty has decreased his zone rate from 57.2% to 51.5% and has strayed away from the dead center of the strike zone approximately 6% more, mixing in his wicked changeup and slider to help evenly disperse his first-pitch repertoire in the meanwhile.
Matt Shoemaker — 0-0 counts
As the Angles attempt to run away with the American League West sans Richards in the final month of the regular season, Shoemaker continues to deliver fantastic results from Scioscia’s rotation and bullpen, striking out batters at a clip similar to Nolan Ryan. Has he outperformed his true value lately? Probably. I don’t think anyone can hold batters to a .216 BABIP for an extended period of time, as Shoemaker has done since July 26 (his BABIP from April to July 21 was .335).
With that said, ‘luck’ isn’t the only factor in play here. Shoemaker has without question made key adjustments early in the count — specifically straying away from the middle of the zone and mixing in a more evenly dispersed percentage of off-speed and breaking offerings — which has limited hard-hit balls in play and subsequent extra-base knocks against him. Can he continue to execute, and will hitters adjust?
We’ll get our first look Saturday afternoon.