How does one apologize for not writing for more than a month and a half? It’s hard, man. Maybe one does not apologize to one’s readers. Maybe one’s readers accepts that it is what it is.
You know what else is what it simply is? Matthew David Shoemaker, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim’s right-handed reliever-turned-starter.
Every baseball season often produces more questions than answers. Namely: Who is Matt Shoemaker? Where did he come from? Why am I writing about him if he’s not that good?
Let us rewind to 2012. A mysterious figure emerged from the mist of the Seattle Mariners’ bullpen to dazzle us– or maybe just me, given he never really received the recognition he deserved. Maybe he had a right to be ignored: he posted a 4.75 ERA and 1.42 WHIP in 30-1/3 relief innings. If you don’t know how this fairy tale ends, it goes something like: goes largely unnoticed in 2012, is drafted outside the top 75 pitchers on average in ESPN drafts in 2013, and eventually emerges as a borderline fantasy ace by the name of Hisashi Iwakuma.
There’s a lesson to be learned. Iwakuma’s horrid statistics as a reliever muddied his season numbers. In hindsight, a 3.15 ERA for the year is solid, but a 2.65 ERA is better, and that’s what Iwakuma posted strictly as a starter. Yet fantasy owners who opted only to scratch the surface saw mostly unsightly ratios.
The same fairy tale manifested itself in a different form in 2013 that would make the Brothers Grimm proud. The Cleveland Indians’ Corey Kluber emerged from the bullpen in May, albeit after only half a dozen innings, many more than that in 2012. Kluber’s season, however, began with aplomb — and by aplomb, I mean “a handful of horrible starts.” Starts horrible enough to sully his numbers for the year (3.95 ERA). But the peripherals were there at season’s end: 8.28 strikeouts per nine innings, 2.09 walks per nine, 3.12 xFIP. In case you haven’t kept track, Kluber has more or less assumed the role as Cleveland’s staff ace this year, posting a 2.95 ERA with more strikeouts than innings.
I will now shortsightedly assume, without any kind of research, that this kind of thing happens every year. Every year, there’s at least one player who emerges from the bullpen and becomes an ace. Sure, you have the Chris Sales and Adam Wainwrights of the baseball world, who make a gigantic, whale-sized spash, but you also have the Iwakumas and Klubers, who basically don’t make a splash at all and probably sit on the side of the pool with their feet dangling in and shirts still on.
So I’m calling it: Mr. Shoemaker will be 2015’s reincarnation of this fairy tale.
In keeping the trend alive, a look at Shoemaker’s stats tell you… well, in the way of anything positive, not much. He has somehow notched seven wins despite a 4.54 ERA and 1.30 WHIP, so that rules. Worse, his WHIP was, like, 1.42 before his most recent start. So, bad season stat line? Check.
Meanwhile, he has struck out 9.68, and walked only 1.87, hitters per nine innings. It would behoove me to point out that these numbers dwarf those posted by Kluber in 2013, during which Kluber existed primarily in a gelatinous state of Emerging Star. It would also behoove me to point out that a reader with a discerning eye would notice that Shoemaker has a still-lackluster 4.37 ERA and 1.28 WHIP as a starter, fitting the mold of “maybe his season numbers are ruined.” It would further behoove me to point out that he is suffering the misfortune of a .350 batting average on balls in play (BABIP), which, if normalized to a more reasonable .320, would produce a 1.20 WHIP. A league-average .300 BABIP? A 1.14 WHIP. So, distorted stats as a starter? Check.
Perhaps the most important, and valid, question at this point is whether or not Shoemaker can sustain what he’s doing. Small sample size caveats abound here, but I think the results are still substantial, if not due for regression. For all pitchers who have thrown at least 60 innings, Shoemaker ranks 11th in swinging strike percentage (11.9), one spot behind Stephen Strasburg, the MLB strikeout leader, and three spots ahead of his teammate Garrett Richards, who has done all kinds of breaking out this year. Shoemaker also ranks 9th in hitter contact allowed (73.5 percent), sandwiched between Gio Gonzalez and, yes, Richards. Thus, even given small sample size caveats, Shoemaker is among excellent company. The walk rate may suffer; it’s hard to say, and even harder still given that I’m on an airplane over central California with no internet. But, given the browser tabs I still have open, I can tell you that Shoemaker’s percentage of pitches thrown in the strike zone, according to FanGraphs’ data, trails only Clayton Kershaw and Mets reliever Carlos Torres among the 10 names ahead of his on the swinging strike percentage list. That bodes well for projecting his control going forward. (PITCHf/x, however, portends another story, as his zone percentage trails six of the eight names ahead of his. But when the names you trail are Felix Hernandez, Masahiro Tanaka and Kershaw, I’d say you’re not doing so bad for yourself.) So, solid peripherals? Check.
It’s a makeshift and largely personal checklist, but so far, Shoemaker meets all my criteria for the gelantinous Emerging Star. Who knows how Shoemaker will fare during the season’s last two months, but I think he’s worth owning now despite his current stat line. As for 2015 and beyond, I like him — for now. I wouldn’t bother keeping him, as I think his value will be depressed heading into next year’s draft, so you can easily wait around for him in the late rounds, if not add him as free agency in the first couple of weeks of the season, just as many owners did with Iwakuma and Kluber the past two years.
I hesitate to say Shoemaker is a lock for success. If anything, this post is less about finding The Next Big Thing as it is finding a pitcher whose performance betrays his value. There are the Sonny Grays and Michael Wachas of the world, whose status as top prospects make them costly prospective adds. Then there are the Matt Shoemakers, whose obscurity and relative misfortune keep him out of the fantasy limelight — and, one would hope, on the clearance shelf, from which you can swipe him on the cheap.