Game 149, Mariners at Angels
Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Matt Shoemaker, 7:05pm
Wildcard odds – Fangraphs.com: 33.6% Baseballprospectus.com: 31.0%
Fangraphs’ odds feature gives the M’s a nearly 70% chance of winning today’s game, based almost entirely on the identity of the starting pitchers. The Angels have the better line-up, and are playing at home, so the fact that the M’s are prohibitive favorite tells you something about how the projection systems see both Iwakuma and Shoemaker going forward. To me, the game doesn’t feel like a cakewalk, and while we’ve been shocked by Shoemaker before, it’s time to give the guy a bit of credit.
At the same time, I can’t really blame ZiPS/Steamer. Look at his minor league record, and you see org depth, a guy who has no business in a big league ballpark without paying to be there. Look at his major league stats, and you see an elite starting pitcher. If this sounds familiar, well, yes, Jeff’s article on Shoemaker at Fangraphs was spot-on. The takeaway, at least for me, was just how similar Shoemaker is in arsenal and results to guys like Hiroki Kuroda, Masahiro Tanaka and, yes, Hisashi Iwakuma. Shoemaker’s splitter is a difference-maker, and it’s carved up the American League in 2014. The big question I have is: why does a guy with a pitch that can torch good big league line-ups struggle so much in the minors?
As Jeff pointed out, and as you can verify at your leisure, Shoemaker’s career AAA ERA – accrued over bits and pieces of five seasons – was 5.38. This isn’t a case where he was awful, then learned the splitter and turned interesting. No, Shoemaker made five starts in the PCL *this year* and was inconsistent, hittable and not terribly noticeable just like always. The righty has always had good control, and that’s been critical to his success in the big leagues. An above-average first strike% and a BB/9 under 2 is a great way to limit damage, but there’s often a trade off in home runs, especially if you’re not a ground-ball guy; with a GB% under 42%, Shoemaker’s clearly in the fly-ball camp. Indeed, home runs were a perennial problem for Shoemaker in the minors. Even in his excellent AA campaign in 2011, he allowed a higher HR/9 than the league average. Again, though, fans of Iwakuma and Tanaka will recognize this pattern – ultra-low walks, high strikeouts, with pretty much all of the damage coming on longballs. It’s not great for FIP/fWAR, but it’s clearly an approach that can work. More interesting to me, though, was that it wasn’t *just* HRs that killed Shoemaker. At nearly every stop, he’s been extremely hittable. In his minor league career, he’s given up about 10 hits per 9 innings. In AAA, that figure rose to over 11 per 9.
This is a minor league journeyman, an undrafted minor college player, who’s pitching like an All-Star. His K-BB% is 20th in baseball, tied with Jonny Cueto, and just a tick behind Iwakuma. He’s got a well-above average contact rate, which is probably how he can be around the plate so much without paying for it in hits and home runs. We’ve seen a few guys with essentially no big-time track record break into the big leagues and post a nice ERA for a year or two (JA Happ, a million relievers), but we haven’t seen guys fluke their way to this kind of fielding-independent success. Here’s a table of the best K-BB% from a rookie starter over the past 10 years. Shoemaker’s in there at #10, and while a place on the list doesn’t guarantee a long, happy MLB career, the most of the guys who haven’t done much after their rookie year have one thing in common: surgery. Corey Luebke’s had two, as has Brandon Beachy. Michael Pineda had one, Matt Harvey’s still on his way back, etc. It’s just not normal to pitch this well for 100 innings and have it not mean anything.
How on earth is he giving up *8* per 9 in the big leagues? How has his K% increased, while his walk rate’s dropped, and his HR rate is stable/a bit lower? It seems like there are a couple of possible answers here. First, while lengthy flukes of this nature are rare, they’re not unheard of. Once big league hitters adjust, Shoemaker may find his stats reverting to his minor league averages (which would still be kind of amazing given that MLB is, you know, BETTER than the minors). The parallels here are Tony Cingrani and one-time sleeper prospect Erasmo Ramirez. It’s both remarkable and painful to see Erasmo on that list of rookie starters – he was 22, didn’t walk anyone, and posted a 5:1 K:BB ratio in 59 innings for the 2012 M’s. Since that time, he’s dealt with serious home run problems and either lost his control or been scared out of the zone. His K:BB ratio since is under 2, and his HR/9 has gone from 0.92 (Shoemaker-esque!) to 1.48 (Shoemaker-in-Salt-Lake-esque!). Personally, I think injuries may have more to do with this sad slide than Erasmo and the team have let on, but whatever the cause, Erasmo was not able to fulfill the promise of that brief call-up. Cingrani’s an interesting case, as he came up through the Reds system with basically one pitch, a fastball. Thanks to a deceptive delivery, Cingrani’s average velocity played up, and he struck out errbody in the minors. The Reds wanted him to develop secondary pitches, because no one can succeed with just a fastball (Bartolo Colon excepted), but that’s what Cingrani did last season, posting a K% near 29% (that’s incredibly good) and an ERA under 3. Unfortunately, the National League seems to have adjusted this year, and Cingrani’s ERA’s in the mid-4s, his K rate is down, and his HR rate is even higher than Erasmo’s. Again, Cingrani’s shoulder injury makes you wonder if he’s been 100% this season, but then again, his velocity wasn’t down, and, I feel like I should repeat this, the guy’s entire game plan was throwing 92mph fastballs.
The other possibility here is that MLB is no longer a bigger, better version of the minor leagues – that the changes that have swept through the big leagues have simply not filtered down the affiliate ladder yet. The big change I’m referring to is how the strike zone’s changed since the 2007 introduction of the pitch-fx system. Among the many culprits people point to for the decline in offense in the bigs, the strike zone changes seems (at least to me) the most plausible. Arming the umpires with much more information about what they were getting right and wrong, the strike zone has increased in size, and it’s done so by growing at the knees. That is, pitches near the bottom edge of the zone are now called strikes more often than they were in 2008. This finding has been corroborated many times, so it’s not likely to be due to pitch fx calibration issues or a botched research design. The question is, has the same change occurred in the minors? Some parks have pitch fx, and many have the TrackMan system, but to my knowledge, they tend to be used by teams for quantitative scouting, not checking the work of minor league umps. If it hasn’t, the effect would be different for different pitchers. A guy like Shoemaker, whose game seems predicated on getting people to chase low splitters and sliders, it could be pretty important. If hitters can know that a splitter isn’t going to be called, they may be able to hold off, even if it initially looks like it’s right down the middle. Since his fastball’s straight and only 91mph, they could sit on them once he fell behind in the count. Is that what happened to Shoemaker? I have no idea. It sounds possible, but then almost no one throws splitters to get *called* strikes – they’re whiff generators. It’s guys with good curves who should *really* notice the difference. But given Shoemaker’s breakout, that spate of awful games PCL umpire call-ups had early this season, and Javier Baez’s frustration about the zone, I do wonder if they’re more dissimilar than they’ve been in a while, and I wonder what that means for everything from Taijuan Walker’s chances of success to stats like major league equivalencies (MLEs) if they are.
A linked, but distinct possibility is that the PCL is especially hard on command guys like Shoemaker because their breaking balls flatten out in the high-altitude parks of Colorado Springs, Albuquerque, Reno and Shoemaker’s home park, Salt Lake. With less vertical “rise” on his fastball, less side-spin on his slider, it’s easy to assume that Shoemaker would be a sitting duck, and the hypothesis would seem to explain why Shoemaker could be effective at AA and then implode once he got to AAA. The problem is that his best pitch, the splitter, would seem to be an ideal pitch at altitude, because it relies less on pure spin than a true breaking ball (it doesn’t really need horizontal movement, and some of the apparent “drop” can be the result of *less* backspin than a regular fastball, causing the pitch to appear to sink more). In any case, Shoemaker’s minor league numbers suggest a mid-rotation insurance or medical device salesman, not a guy with a big league ERA of 3 in over 130 innings.
Roenis Elias’s solid season has boggled my mind. Whoever the hell Shane Greene is has stabilized the Yankee rotation. Yusmeiro freaking Petit has a lower contact% than Felix Hernandez, Corey Kluber and Max Scherzer. Baseball is weird, and pitchers are engine of entropy at the center of it all. A pitcher like Kluber can suddenly click and pitch like a Cy Young candidate. Or, they can suddenly lose any concept of the strike zone like Erasmo (at the mild end of the spectrum) or Cody Buckel/Mark Wohlers (at the extreme end). But what Shoemaker shows is the possibility that even pitchers who don’t change their approach can look completely different when placed in a new context. That’s thrilling (“wait, could *I* be a big league if I changed my shirt and received just the right series of butt-pats?”), and also disorienting. I love hearing from scouts because I think I learn something new about pitching/hitting and even about *watching* baseball every time. I respect them tremendously. Maybe the Angels pro scouting department knew this was coming, but I can pretty much guarantee that 29 other scouting departments did not. That is, the best scouts in the business can watch a guy pitch in the high minors and have no inkling that he’s about to go 12-5 in the big leagues. Just like 20-some odd teams can pass on Mike Trout, who was essentially the best baseball player on the planet on draft day, and has remained so ever since. To be fair, I’m not picking on scouts here: they were clearly slightly ahead of the statheads, who if they’d had a vote, would’ve told Shoemaker to move to the bullpen or retirement. All of us, except for maybe a couple of people in Anaheim, saw this coming. Personally, I’m glad about that.
1: Jackson, CF
2: Ackley, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Seager, 3B
5: Morales, DH
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Saunders, RF
8: Zunino, C
9: Miller, SS