Matt Shoemaker Borrows From the Tanaka Playbook by Jeff Sullivan June 1, 2016 Every player, of course, goes through ups and downs, but not every player has the same range between the peaks and the valleys. Take Matt Shoemaker. Just a few weeks ago, there was an argument that he could be the worst starting pitcher in the majors. Even the Angels didn’t know what to do with him, and the Angels are in no position to be picky. Through six starts, Shoemaker had an ERA north of 9, and he’d allowed a slugging percentage close to .600. He looked like the major-league version of the non-prospect he was once considered. He was in over his head. Every at-bat was a nightmare. Over the last three starts, Shoemaker’s allowed five runs. Better yet, he’s managed 28 strikeouts with just a pair of walks, and two outings in a row now he’s ripped off double-digit whiffs without a single free pass. Since the somewhat arbitrary date of May 12, Shoemaker’s allowed a slugging percentage of .256, a thousandth of a point better than Jake Arrieta. Shoemaker isn’t one of the best pitchers in baseball, and he isn’t one of the worst pitchers in baseball, but he’s looked like both, within a very short time frame. The rebound here has been extreme. What’s been the key for Shoemaker’s turnaround? Maybe he polished his mechanics. Maybe he’s clearer of head. Maybe almost anything. But there’s certainly one thing that does stand out, which is Shoemaker adopting the Masahiro Tanaka strategy. Tanaka simply doesn’t throw many fastballs. Shoemaker as well has gone with something else. Shoemaker was briefly demoted to Triple-A, and he went there to work on his fastball command. That’s not a particularly specific goal, since every pitcher in baseball could stand to improve his fastball command, but the Angels wanted to see Shoemaker better setting up his other pitches. Shoemaker returned to the majors to start on May 11. He got knocked around by the Cardinals, and he threw his heater 63% of the time. What he was doing wasn’t working. The quick demotion hadn’t made him any better. The next time out, Shoemaker held his own against the Dodgers. Then he dominated the Orioles, then he dominated the Astros. The performances came almost out of nowhere, but Shoemaker has effectively saved his job. Against the Dodgers, he didn’t throw many fastballs. He threw fewer still in the following games. The change was abrupt and dramatic, and you can see it here in this plot of Shoemaker’s big-league career. On the x-axis: games. On the y-axis: single-game splitter rate. I went with splitter rate instead of fastball rate, but the two are mirror images of each other. Fastball usage has gone way down, and splitter usage has gone way up. The last three times out, Shoemaker has had some of his lowest single-game fastball rates. And, the last three times out, Shoemaker has had his three highest single-game splitter rates. This year through six starts, Shoemaker threw 55% fastballs and 19% splitters. Over the more recent three-start stretch, he’s thrown 36% fastballs and 46% splitters. The splitter has actually functioned as the primary pitch. Reportedly, Shoemaker went to Triple-A to try to remember how to set his splitter up with his fastball. Recently, he’s basically ignored that, practically setting up the fastball with the splitter. It goes against convention, but it’s not like the previous version of Shoemaker was getting the job done. He knows what his best pitch is, so now he’s simply using it more. All the good indicators are there. Of course they are, given Shoemaker’s results. You can’t do what he’s done and not come away with encouraging underlying numbers. He’s made himself less predictable, and he’s done so in all situations across the board. This’ll show you what I mean: Shoemaker has thrown a lot more two-strike splitters, but he’s also thrown plenty more one-strike splitters, and even zero-strike splitters. He also has a slider he likes, and an occasional curveball, but the biggest changes have been with the other pitches. There’s no such thing as a fastball count anymore. Shoemaker’s been pitching backwards, and even though that’s usually just a tactic reserved for those with underwhelming heaters, Shoemaker knows he has an underwhelming heater. So why try to force it? The fastball, historically, has gotten hit. The splitter has gotten hit less. It always made sense to throw more of the latter, and less of the former. For visual purposes, here’s Shoemaker starting a guy off with a first-pitch splitter for a strike: Look closely and you’ll notice Shoemaker shook off a fastball sign. He wants to throw those splitters early. Here’s a two-strike putaway splitter: They’re not all that good. Shoemaker’s splitter isn’t elite; unlike with Tanaka, Shoemaker’s splitter has never been referred to as maybe the best in the world. But this is certainly Shoemaker’s best pitch, and if he isn’t going to be blessed with outstanding fastball command, then he shouldn’t have to throw that pitch that much. The fastball works better as part of a blend, where hitters don’t know what to expect. Right now, the possibility of a splitter is ever-present, which makes the rest of the repertoire sneaky useful. A splitter doesn’t have to play off the fastball. They can play off of one another. When Shoemaker first emerged as an effective big-leaguer, he threw his splitter just a fifth of the time. He wasn’t anything close to this extreme, but perhaps the league just caught up to him. Or perhaps something else, but the more fastball-heavy Shoemaker didn’t get outs. Now that he’s flashing the splitter damn near half the time, there are outs. This could conceivably get adjusted to, too, but Matt Shoemaker has at least bought himself some time. He was almost out of time to do that.