Fantasy Baseball: Matt Shoemaker Has Serious Sleeper Potential
I am not writing about any of them today.
In 160 innings with the Los Angeles Angels, the righty posted a 3.88 ERA, 3.52 FIP and 3.48 Deserved Run Average. His campaign was cut short after a truly scary moment, when a comebacker hit him in the head, resulting in a small skull fracture.
The 30-year-old is back on the mound this spring and looking comfortable in his Cactus League outings. It seems there aren’t any lingering effects from the injury, which is obviously great news.
It also means Shoemaker can look towards building off his successful 2016 season and provide great value for fantasy baseball owners. His average draft position (ADP) in NFBC drafts is 227, meaning he is getting taken around the 18th round of 12-team drafts.
This is considerably later than Price (ADP of 48.99), Martinez (68.08) and Quintana (108.05). While these guys will almost surely be more productive than Shoemaker if they're healthy, it’s worth questioning whether the gap in ADP is warranted.
If Shoemaker duplicates his performance last season, he will be one of fantasy baseball’s best values. But can he make it happen?
Ball in Play Regression
Shoemaker’s ERA- in 2016 was 97, suggesting his performance was just slightly above average after park and league adjustments. However, his FIP- of 85 was tied for 16th in the majors among those who threw at least 160 innings.
The gap between the two numbers can mostly be chalked up to his .315 BABIP allowed. It’s hard to be concerned about this number, even after setting aside the inherent volatility of balls in play.
In his first two big league seasons, Shoemaker didn't produce a BABIP higher than .286. So, his 2016 number was a bit of an outlier in the opposite direction. Prior to last year, his career soft-contact rate was 16.1%, while his hard-contact rate was 31.1%, according to FanGraphs.
But last season, his soft-contact rate increased to 17.4% and his hard-contact rate fell to 30.1%. While his line-drive rate went up to about 24% from a previous average of 19.1%, his infield-fly rate also increased from 7.1% to 13.2%. Only 10 pitchers threw at least as many innings as Shoemaker and generated infield flies more often.
In terms of exit velocity, he was at 88.5 miles per hour last year and 87.6 miles per hour in 2015. According to xstats.org, after taking factors including exit velocity and launch angle into consideration, he “should have” allowed a BABIP of .300 last season, which further supports the theory he was a bit unlucky (luck may have played less of a role in his prior ball in play success, as his xBABIP in 2015 was .285).
The combination of these numbers should make us confident his BABIP will regress to the mean in 2017, so he'll just need to master the “three true outcomes” again to be a top-tier run preventer.
To do so, he will need to answer two questions affirmatively.
Can He Get the Strikeouts Back?
Walks have never been a problem for Shoemaker, who has only issued a free pass to 5.1% of the batters in his career. It was even better last year, when he brought his walk rate down to 4.5%.
His relationship with strikeouts and home runs has been a bit more complicated, though.
In his first full big league season in 2014, Shoemaker struck out 22.8% of batters he faced, but this dipped to 20.4% the following season (a decline in the whiff rate on his curveball may have been part of the reason why; he has virtually scrapped the pitch since).
Early last season, it looked like Shoemaker would continue to be a low-strikeout pitcher after fanning just 13.8% of opponents in his first six starts. As Paul Sporer of FanGraphs and others have noted, Shoemaker began to throw his splitter -- which had been his best swing-and-miss pitch -- considerably more often from that point onwards.
From May 16 until the end of the year, Shoemaker posted a 23.1% strikeout rate, contributing to his 73 ERA-, 73 FIP- and 19.6% K-BB%. As Mark Davidson wrote at Beyond the Box Score, he was at his best in his middle nine starts, where his strikeout rate was 29.8% and his FIP- was 55.
His strikeout rate dipped back to 17.7% from July through the end of the season, and as Davidson notes, this might have been due to decreasing usage and effectiveness from his slider (rather than the league adjusting to his splitter, which remained effective in this final stretch of the season).
His release point on his slider stayed consistent, and Davidson hypothesizes that the diminishing effectiveness of his slider was due to how the pitch was leaving his hand. If he can get this sorted out, it's possible we could see Shoemaker get close to fanning batters at the rate he did in May and June.
Even if he can’t, his FIP was still really good thanks to his elite walk rate and strong 1.01 home runs per nine innings rate (the league average was about 1.2).
Can He Keep the Homers Down?
This final (and most important) component of FIP is probably the area where Shoemaker’s success from 2016 is the least sustainable. He allowed a low rate of home runs despite allowing a high rate of fly balls (his 36.5% fly ball rate was 25th out of the 75 pitchers who threw 160 innings or more).
A low home-run-to-fly-ball rate (HR/FB%) was the reason why; his HR/FB% was just 10.3%, below his previous career average of 11.7% and the big league average of 12.8%. His xFIP- was 91, implying that his FIP- would have been six points worse had he been at the league average in this department.
Per xStats.org, he “should have” allowed about 23 home runs, while he actually gave up 18. This would have translated to a 13.2% homer-to-fly-ball rate average, 1.3 homers per nine and a 3.92 FIP.
While the FIP would still have been above the league average, it would also be closer to the middle of the pack. This is about what the projection models forecast for Shoemaker in 2017. Our projections, plus Steamer, ZiPS and PECOTA project Shoemaker to post ERAs of 3.88, 3.84, 3.81 and 3.86, respectively (the four models peg his home run per nine rate between 1.11 and 1.21).
This kind of performance would outpace his ADP, especially if he can deliver the 190-plus innings FanGraphs is projecting him to pitch (Steamer projects him to record the 31st-most strikeouts, but on average, he has been the 61st starting pitcher off the board).
If he can rediscover what was working in the middle of last season and crank his strikeout rate back up, Shoemaker could easily be one of the draft's biggest steals.