The Unstoppable Matt Shoemaker

I thank God every day. It’s still a dream. Being here, it’s a dream. It’s surreal and I’m trying to hold onto it.

Matt Shoemaker, 2013

***

The Blue Jays are playing the A’s. Two out, an 0-2 count in the bottom of the third, a runner on first. Matt Shoemaker is facing Stephen Piscotty.

You can probably guess what’s coming next. It’s Shoemaker’s specialty, his put away pitch, the pitch he has thrown 71% of the time this season when facing a right-handed hitter in a two-strike count: a splitter, diving out of the bottom of the zone. Matt Chapman guesses, and he takes his chances, straying a few steps away from first. Stephen Piscotty guesses, and when the pitch leaves Shoemaker’s hand, he doesn’t swing.

They guess right — it’s a splitter, low, and it hits the dirt in front of Danny Jansen. Ball one. But Jansen recovers it faster than Chapman can recover his steps. He throws to first, where Rowdy Tellez is waiting, ready. They have Chapman caught. And as Tellez chases after him, ball in hand, Shoemaker does what he’s supposed to do. He runs from the mound to cover first, and when the ball comes his way, he, too, is ready. He sprints alongside Chapman, both of them unstable, the unwieldy dance of the rundown clearly in its dying stages. Shoemaker reaches out his glove, turns to avoid a collision, and suddenly —

Something is wrong.

Shoemaker knows that something is wrong. He knows immediately. He slams his arm against his leg, as if to punish it. And as he sits on the ground, as the trainers swarm around him, he pounds his fist against the grass — a violent expression of pain. The pain of the twisted leg, and the pain of the last three years, too; the pain of seasons lost to injury, of seasons before that, five years in the minor leagues, being skipped over in the draft, an ERA above five at Eastern Michigan. Second place in Rookie of the Year voting, a $10,000 signing bonus, a broken arm in junior year. Emergency brain surgery. The pain of loss — of having the thing you’ve worked for your whole life taken away from you in one cruel, random moment. Of having it wrenched from you, painfully, without there ever being an explanation, something to at least give you a reason why.

He extends his arm. He limps slowly off the field, a trainer under each arm. They say it’s a knee sprain. The next day, they say it isn’t. It’s a torn ACL. Shoemaker will not pitch again this season.

***

The MLB First-Year Draft is a exercise in endurance. Its 50 rounds extend it far longer than its equivalents in the other major North American professional sports. Over a thousand names are read, with varying degrees of ceremony, over the course of those three days. Even for those whose names come late, after all the anticipation and anxiety, the moment they hear their name transforms the draft into one of the greatest moments of their lives — the ultimate recognition of all the hard work, all the sacrifice, all the superlative talent. Many more, though, are left with the opposite feeling. They stick it out through the whole damn thing, the grueling days in limbo — but unlike the chosen ones, their moment of catharsis that never comes. (It seems cruel that the ones who are the most certain are the ones chosen first; they are spared the purgatory of waiting.) When it is all over, they have nothing to celebrate, no news to share with family members, no team claiming them. They close the laptop, and what’s left for them is an emptiness, a hollow disappointment. It is no easy task, finding something else to do with your life.

Matt Shoemaker was one of the unlucky ones. 1,504 names were read in the 2008 First-Year Draft. None of them were his. He was a pitcher from Eastern Michigan University with a mid-80s fastball and an average of 4.96 strikeouts per nine. He’d recently broken an arm. It didn’t matter that he’d led the league in saves his junior year. There was nothing for him. When Angels scout Joel Murrie, who would eventually sign him, first called Shoemaker, the signing bonus he offered was nothing at all. Eventually, after further scouting, the Angels decided they could give him $10,000.

Shoemaker had graduated college. He had a business degree. He could have gotten a real job. Instead, he went to the Angels: to their farm system, the Midwest League and peanut butter dinners, accumulating debt and miles on his 2001 Ford Taurus, teaching at Eastern Michigan over the offseason to make ends meet. Five seasons in the minor leagues on a $10,000 bonus. Every winter, Shoemaker sat down with his family to discuss his future in baseball. Every winter, he decided to keep playing.

***

In 2011, it seemed, at last, that Shoemaker’s hard work was finally on the verge of coming to fruition. Playing for the Double-A Arkansas Travelers, he had the most successful season of his career thus far, pitching 156.1 innings, cutting his walk rate from 7.3% in Hi-A the previous season to 5.6%, finishing the year with a 12-5 record, a 1.07 WHIP, and a 2.48 ERA. (FIP liked him less at 3.97.) He was named Pitcher of the Year of both the Texas League and the Angels’ minor league system writ large, and the Travelers held a Matt Shoemaker Removable Goatee giveaway, which more than any other marker suggested that Shoemaker had become, if not a prospect per se, than at least someone worth noting. He began the next season in Triple-A, in the extreme offensive environment of the Pacific Coast League, where his roundly unimpressive numbers quickly obscured him again.

Shoemaker’s major league debut, then, was barely noticed, a late-September spot start by a no-name player in a 78-84 season. For what it was worth, his game was one of the 78: five innings, two hits, two walks, no runs, a victory over the similarly out-of-the-running Mariners. It was likely worth little to the Angels, who just needed a man with an arm on the mound, nor to the fans of either team, who no longer had reason to care. There was a decent chance that it would be both the first and last start Shoemaker ever made in the major leagues. He was 26 years and 306 days old, the 30th-oldest player to debut that season. (Of those 30, only Shoemaker has played in the major leagues in 2019.) Underneath the video recapping his start, there is just a single comment, lonely and unresponded-to.

Within in a year, the unlikely wisdom of Musclepharm52 had proven correct. Despite the fact that he had not figured into the Angels’ rotation plans for the year, to the extent that he hadn’t even been stretched out as a starter in the spring, and despite the fact that he spent two stints in Triple-A, Shoemaker — out of nowhere — became the Angels’ second-most valuable pitcher in 2014. And, as Jeff Sullivan noted, there was little reason not to believe in his success. This was the first time Shoemaker had faced major-league competition for any length of time, and the results were excellent. He was distinguished by his excellent command of the strike zone — at 4.4%, his walk rate ranked 13th among all major-league starters with at least 100 innings pitched — combined with an ability to miss bats bolstered by his use of the splitter. (His 18.5% K/BB% ranked 18th among starters with at least 100 innings pitched.)

Shoemaker’s contributions to an Angels rotation with significant depth concerns before the season began were integral to the team making the playoffs for the first time in the Mike Trout Era. And though the Angels were swept out of the postseason in three games against the Royals, Shoemaker’s start was typical of the pitcher he had shown himself to be over the past season: six innings, six strikeouts, no walks, one run. He closed the season in Japan, pitching for the MLB All-Stars against Kenta Maeda and Shohei Ohtani, finishing second in Rookie of the Year voting. His story of rags to riches, from undrafted to indomitable, from beardless to bearded, became common knowledge. He had, somehow, captured baseball’s imagination.

Over that offseason, he welcomed his first child — a healthy baby boy. “God wanted to give us all our blessings at once,” his wife Danielle said.

***

The Angels are playing the Tigers. It is a hazy late-August afternoon in Detroit. A Thursday day game, which doesn’t usually make for great attendance, and the Tigers are not very good this year. But the stadium is still mostly full, even though it is now one out into the eighth inning, and even though the Tigers have only recorded a single hit against the man in red still standing on the mound — the man with the remarkable beard, waiting now as his manager saunters out from the dugout.

Ten days prior, on August 17, the Angels optioned Shoemaker to Triple-A after a start wherein he couldn’t finish the second inning before allowing the Royals to score six runs. His sophomore season had failed to live up to the expectations set by his rookie campaign. After struggling through the first few months of the season, Shoemaker seemed to have turned a corner with a strong July, but his struggles returned with renewed intensity in August.

The situation lined up so that Shoemaker’s return from his PCL exile would be against the Tigers in Detroit. Shoemaker grew up a devoted Tigers fan; the baseball experiences of his childhood had been formed from the crowd. Now, finally, he was on the other side. And he was triumphant. He dominated the Tigers lineup through seven and a third innings: one hit, one walk, five strikeouts. He was brisk, efficient, requiring only 95 pitches to retire 22 batters. Beyond the stuff of wild fantasy — the perfect game, the no-hitter — this game could not have been any better if it had been scripted.

Shoemaker gives the ball to Scoscia, walks off the mound. Out in the crowd, his family and friends cheer, tears in their eyes. They know just how far he has travelled to return home. They know how much the fulfillment of this dream means.

***

Looking back on Shoemaker’s 2016 — his best season, where he rebounded after an extraordinarily bad April, upped his splitter usage, and became a useful starting pitcher once again — one event stands out above all the others, one of those things so horrific that you can’t forget it once you’ve seen it: the terrifying worst-case scenario that lies behind every line drive.

It’s hard to know what to say about something like this. There’s no meaning, baseball or otherwise, to be derived from such a cruelly random act of horror. There is just the fear of a life that might be threatened, the unflinching mortality infringing on a sport that mythologizes itself as immortal. As Kyle Seager said, “You really don’t care too much about a stupid game at that point.” There was no baseball in that moment. Just a person lying on the ground, a person surrounded by other people, a heavy silence, a sigh of relief when he got up, walked off the field. The anxiety of waiting for updates, the tiny shocks carried of the words “emergency brain surgery,” “skull fracture,” “hematoma.” I saw the play unfold on my TV screen. I never expected to see Shoemaker play again.

He was back the next season, pitching for the Angels, before injury felled him again. He disappeared. He returned the season after that. Again, it was shortened by injury. Shoemaker disappeared again, and he returned again, this time on a one-year deal with the Toronto Blue Jays. In his first start, he pitched seven shutout innings. In his second start, he did the same thing. He allowed just two hits in each start. Over his five appearances in the first month of the season, he allowed just five earned runs. For a Jays team with little to root for except the eventual arrival of Vlad Jr., Shoemaker became one of the unexpected surprises that makes you keep watching, even in the times where it might not otherwise seem to be worth it — that reminds you why you started watching in the first place.

***

You can identify so many points on the Matt Shoemaker timeline where it would have made sense for him to give up. When he wasn’t drafted. After his third year in the minors, or his fourth, or his fifth. After the brutal starts in 2015 and 2016, and the demotions that followed both. After the line drive to the head. After the injuries in 2017. After the injuries in 2018. And now, when he had started the season with such conviction. There has been a lot of pain in Shoemaker’s career, a lot of obstacles that he has overcome, only to be confronted by more on the other side. One could look at this career and see the journey of a profoundly unlucky man.

The amazing thing is that Shoemaker, after all this time, still refuses to see himself that way. He feels the pain, still, slams his hand on the grass. Then he gets up, as he always has. He continues on. When he says that this is just another little bump in the road, that he won’t be stopped, I want to believe him.

We hoped you liked reading The Unstoppable Matt Shoemaker by Rachael McDaniel!

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Rachael is the current managing editor of The Hardball Times and dilettante-in-residence at FanGraphs. Previous work can be found at Baseball Prospectus, VICE Sports, and The Hardball Times.

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Alfrs
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Alfrs

Well I sure as hell am not betting against him. Get well soon.