Twins Opt for Variance with Matt Shoemaker

In 2016, Matt Shoemaker had a career year. He made 27 starts, threw 160 innings, and compiled 3.5 WAR on the back of a 3.88 ERA, 3.52 FIP, and truly pinpoint control (4.5% walk rate). In the four years since, he’s thrown 166 innings — total. That’s been worth 1.3 WAR, with his 4.12 ERA, 4.73 FIP, and 8.2% walk rate all representing steps back from his peak form.

Of course, as a pitcher, his services are still in demand: There are never enough arms to cover the innings that teams need, and you can always dream on someone returning to their peak form. This year, that need and dream belong to the Twins, who signed Shoemaker on Sunday to a one-year deal worth $2 million as he attempts to reprise his former success.

From late 2016 to ’20, everything that could go wrong for Shoemaker did. On September 4, 2016, he was hit in the head with a line drive that fractured his skull. He rehabbed from that injury in time for the 2017 season, only to have his year cut short by forearm tightness; he eventually had a compressed nerve surgically corrected. When he returned to the field, his arm still hurt, and he missed most of 2018 after surgery on an elbow tendon.

That was enough for the Angels, who non-tendered Shoemaker, but his woes were only beginning. After signing with the Blue Jays, he tore his ACL during a rundown (as a fielder, but still!) after only five starts. After yet another rehab, he returned for an abbreviated 2020. Even then, he couldn’t stay on the field, missing the better part of a month with shoulder inflammation.

That’s a truly grim five-year stretch, the kind of injury past that some pitchers can’t recover from. But while some pitchers’ arms are never the same after that kind of luck, Shoemaker has been effective when he’s taken the field. It hasn’t been great — as I mentioned above, his ERA, FIP, and walk rate have all been worse — but he’s still been playable, and it’s easy to convince yourself that a healthy Shoemaker might add back some velocity and pick up where he left off.

Want some further reason for optimism? That velocity bump might already be happening. Shoemaker throws a four-seamer and a two-seamer, and he’s never thrown either harder than he did in his abbreviated 2020:

Fastball Velo by Year (mph)
Year Four-Seam Velo Two-Seam Velo
2013 91.8 90.5
2014 91.3 91.0
2015 91.0 90.8
2016 92.3 91.9
2017 92.0 91.8
2018 92.0 91.8
2019 90.9 91.0
2020 92.5 92.2

This isn’t a situation where Shoemaker’s raw stuff has cratered so much that he’s more name than production; he’s throwing similarly to when he was that 160-inning, 3.5-WAR pitcher. He set a career high in four-seam whiff rate by inducing misses on 40% of the swings opposing batters took, and 58.3% of the two-seamers that batters put in play were grounders, another career high. The core of his game looks as good as ever.

Shoemaker complements those two fastballs with a splitter, and while I’m not crazy enough to think I know how to analyze splitters, his seems excellent. It, too, gets a ton of grounders: 58.8% of balls in play in 2020. It, too, misses bats: a 34.4% whiff rate in 2020 that was actually below his career average for the pitch (37.4). It’s his best pitch, and in his last two years, he’s thrown it roughly a third of the time. His breaking ball of choice, a slider, completes the picture. He throws it roughly 20% of the time, and it’s more a show-me pitch than anything else, with a 32.9% whiff rate (league average is 34.9) and 15.4% swinging-strike rate (16.8).

You might notice that two of Shoemaker’s top three pitches induce a veritable mountain of grounders, and that his ground-ball rate has continued to tick up. That’s very much by design: In the last three years, he has his three lowest four-seam usage rates. That helps explain his continued ability to survive despite middling strikeout and walk rates: the fewer balls put in the air, the fewer home runs and smashed doubles you allow (though he did give up eight home runs in 2020 due to a ludicrous 29.6% HR/FB rate).

In Minnesota, Shoemaker would be well-served to stick with his new grounder-heavy pitch mix, with the Twins lining up Andrelton Simmons at short and Jorge Polanco at second on most days. The former has likely declined from his second-coming-of-Ozzie peak, but he’s still a premium infield defender. The latter was stretched at shortstop, but now he’ll be playing an easier defensive position, though given that his problems at short were mostly error-based, it’s no given that he’ll play well.

Regardless of my hedging, it’s fair to think that Minnesota will have a plus defensive infield in 2021. Simmons at shortstop and a shortstop at second sounds good for the middle infield; Josh Donaldson is still an asset at third base; and Miguel Sanó… well, first base defense doesn’t matter too much, but Sanó isn’t great there.

That amount of defensive volatility might be worrisome if Shoemaker had to work out to make the Twins a contender. That’s not how this is going to work, though. They’ve built up plenty of rotation depth, to the point where Shoemaker isn’t even a lock to make the rotation. José Berríos, Kenta Maeda, and Michael Pineda are the top three projected starters. Berríos and Maeda are the clear best options, and Pineda was excellent upon returning from suspension last September. The team also brought in J.A. Happ, who’s been better and more durable than you think, and has Randy Dobnak as a swingman. That’s a reasonable top five even if Shoemaker amounts to nothing.

Clearly, the odds of him amounting to nothing are high. Pitchers who are likely to be valuable don’t sign one-year, $2 million contracts. If he doesn’t pan out, c’est la vie. Fail cases are an unavoidable fact of life when you’re making low-cost speculative additions. The Twins will hardly miss his production assuming their other pitchers stay healthy, and the health of those pitchers has nothing to do with Shoemaker.

Viewed as a one-off gamble rather than a concerted team-building strategy, I’m a big fan of this move. If Shoemaker pans out — if he’s healthy and the defense behind him is good — he’s a valuable addition to the team and perhaps the rotation’s third-best starter. If he’s just okay — if he’s healthy but his velocity backs up or the defense is leaky — he’s a solid return for the price. If he’s hurt, Minnesota will simply move on; Dobnak as a fifth starter is hardly a fail case.

Free agency is most enjoyable when your team is signing a no-doubt superstar or replacing a black hole in the lineup. That’s not what most signings are, and this is a good example of the nuts-and-bolts deals that successful teams make all the time. Low risk, high reward if it pans out; make enough of these moves, and you’ll win in the long run.

Having an asymmetric return is key here. If Shoemaker gets hurt, he’s not a dead weight on the team by any means: Minnesota will simply lop him off the depth chart and continue as it would have before, with solid but unspectacular pitching. If he pans out, he’ll add a win or two to this year’s team for cheap. If the Twins didn’t have depth behind him — if the cost of injury or ineffectiveness was below-replacement innings instead of Dobnak innings — the equation might not balance as nicely. Good teams consider their own context in making signings, and to me, the Shoemaker signing is a perfect example of that.

Ben is a contributor to FanGraphs. A lifelong Cardinals fan, he got his start writing for Viva El Birdos. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

newest oldest most voted

For the record, I’m also not likely to be valuable and would also be willing to sign a one year $2.2 million dollar contract.