The Change: Is Matt Shoemaker a Mixed Leaguer?

As you read this, I’m knee deep in moving, with a toddler, a pregnant wife, and an intense case of bronchitis. I’m not asking for sympathy!

Until now, Matt Shoemaker has shown us that he’s got a legit curve, splitter, slider combination, but maybe an iffy fastball. He’s not asking your sympathy!

But we all find a way to make due, like I’m writing this as I sweat in bed and the family is taking a load to the new house without me. And it looks like Shoemaker has found a way to make the package work — by throwing the fastball just about as much as any of his other pitches.

You don’t actually have to get too deep into the peripherals to like Shoemaker. Just soften the leaderboard requirements to 70 innings pitched, and Shoemaker is 13th-best in the big leagues at strikeouts minus walks, which has been shown to be a strong in-season predictor of success. If pitching the baseball well is about striking guys out and not allowing free passes, Shoemaker so far has shown that skill.

But you always want to know if the small sample stuff is sustainable.

The first dive seems to support the work. The whiff rates on his slider (19%) and splitter (24%) are well above average. The pitches break in different directions, so you might be able to believe that he can sustain strikeout rates above one per inning, or 23%, against batters on both sides of the plate.

So far so good. The curve is meh by whiffs (6%) but works as a change of pace that elicits grounders (56% ground balls). He doesn’t have a great overall ground-ball rate, but if he needs a ground ball, he can go to the curve. Since the curve has one of the worst whiff rates for an offspeed pitch, and traditionally has a 35% ground-ball rate on average, you can count the curve as an asset for Shoemaker.

So what gives. How was this guy undrafted in the major league draft? Why did he struggle to show good strikeout rates in the minor leagues? Why did it take him until he was 27 to get here?

Scan his minor league numbers and you’ll see that he’ given up more than a homer per game at most of the stops along the way. Even this year in the big leagues he’s doing the same.

Often bad homer rates are due to a bad fastball, and lo and behold, Shoemaker’s velocity on the two fastballs (around 91) is merely average, and the whiff rates (5% and 5.3% respectively) are also not great. His sinker has only gotten 38.3% ground balls over his major league career, too, so it’s a well below-average pitch by results.

Shoemaker has the tools to make it work. And he’s found a way to help mitigate the bad fastball for now, too — using it less. Sure, overall it looks like he uses them maybe just a little less than most (50.2%, the AL SP league average is 56.2%), but when you break it down further, you’ll see that he’s about as likely to use any pitch at any given time:

Season FA% FT% SL% CU% CH%
Total 28.00% 21.50% 14.30% 12.20% 23.00%

We’re left wondering how bad a bad fastball can be. It hurt Jesse Chavez and Corey Kluber before, and they each ditched the worse fastball they were using for a true breakout. It could be that Shoemaker needs to ditch that bad sinker and start using the four-seamer more for strikeouts, homers be damned. His home park would suggest that’s a good idea. And maybe he’s already doing that, as his sinker usage has been down for two consecutive months.

As for the titular question… yes. Matt Shoemaker has mixed-league worthy offspeed stuff. It’s those fastballs that mean he probably shouldn’t be started in every game in your standard 12-teamer. Save him for home starts, and for starts in pitcher’s parks, and you’ll mitigate your risk on the bad fastball.

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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hoping he’s the next kluber!