Matt Shoemaker owns the Tigers. A graduate of Trenton High School and a former pitcher at Eastern Michigan University, Shoemaker has tormented his hometown team so far in his brief major league career. In four meetings, Shoemaker has limited the Tigers to a 1.01 ERA, with just four runs (three earned) allowed on 18 hits in 26 2⁄3 innings. He has 23 strikeouts to five walks, and Tigers hitters are batting an abysmal .196/.235/.239 against him.
How bad is that? According to tOPS+, a measurement used by Baseball Reference to compare a player’s particular split to his overall performance, Shoemaker has been 65 percent better against the Tigers than against every other team. Only two teams have a lower tOPS+ against him: the Miami Marlins and the San Diego Padres. The Tigers are one of two American League teams with an OPS under .500 against Shoemaker, and one of three AL teams to never homer off him.
The Tigers might be in luck, though. Shoemaker has gotten off to a rough start this year, allowing a 5.21 ERA and 5.97 FIP in his first seven starts. He is walking more batters than ever, and has looked nothing like the pitcher who finished second in AL Rookie of the Year voting in 2014.
Can the Tigers finally figure out how to solve Shoemaker?
Detroit Tigers (17-16) at Los Angeles Angels (17-20)
Time/Place: 10:07 p.m., Angels Stadium
SB Nation blog: Halos Heaven
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Jordan Zimmermann (3-1, 6.21 ERA) vs. RHP Matt Shoemaker (1-2, 5.21 ERA)
Game 34 Pitching Matchup
When Shoemaker broke onto the scene in 2014, he featured a low-90s fastball and a wicked splitter that helped him strike out 22.8 percent of the hitters he faced, an above average rate. However, his real skill was limiting walks; Shoemaker’s 4.4 percent walk rate was the sixth-lowest in the American League that season (minimum 120 innings pitched). It helped him compile an 18.4 percent K-BB%, the 13th-highest among AL pitchers that year, and was a major reason why he held opponents to a 3.04 ERA and 1.07 WHIP.
Nearly all of those numbers, save for the strikeout rate, have trended in the wrong direction since then. Shoemaker’s walk rate puffed up to 6.2 percent in 2015, and has ballooned to 11.0 percent this year. His 9.8 percent K-BB% is roughly half of what he produced in 2014, and he is allowing more home runs than ever before.
However, this hasn’t been a steady decline. Shoemaker saw a brief renaissance in 2016, especially after a short trip to the minor leagues in May. Following his return, he started throwing his splitter roughly 40 percent of the time and limited opponents to a 3.10 ERA in 139 1⁄3 innings. It wasn’t all luck either; Shoemaker struck out 127 hitters to just 20 walks during that span, and opponents managed a .313 batting average on balls in play (BABIP).
This year, it appears Shoemaker has gotten away from that heavy splitter usage.
Opponents have hit at least .268 and slugged at least .460 against Shoemaker’s other pitches in his career. Against the splitter, they are batting .183 and slugging .320.
Key matchup: Matt Shoemaker vs. the heart of the Tigers lineup
On Wednesday, the Tigers offense looked toothless in a loss to Zack Godley and the Arizona Diamondbacks. We can point fingers at Anibal Sanchez or the defense all we want, but the offense only managed a single run on four hits. Their top four hitters were a combined 0-for-12. They flipped the script on Thursday, collecting a combined six hits, three walks, and four runs scored. No. 5 hitter Justin Upton also chipped in with a three-run homer, but the top of the lineup put the screws to Angels starter J.C. Ramirez for most of the game.
Those same four hitters have struggled mightily against Shoemaker in their respective careers. While Nick Castellanos’ .286 average (2-for-7) looks respectable, Miguel Cabrera, Ian Kinsler, and Victor Martinez are a combined 7-for-35. The Tigers have gotten by with contributions from elsewhere at times this season — J.D. Martinez’s return will only help lengthen their lineup — but it’s hard to win when the big bats don’t produce.
We’re over 700 words into a game preview and have not mentioned Jordan Zimmermann yet. This would have been a good omen during his days with the Washington Nationals. He was as reliable a starter as you could find in the game, even if he wasn’t racking up crazy strikeout numbers. Are those days gone? It’s tough to say, but the underlying numbers aren’t pretty this season. No American League starter has given up more hard contact, and he is surrendering over two home runs per nine innings. The heavy west coast air might help deaden a ball or two — this will go both ways, unfortunately — but Zimmermann will need to be better if he’s going to navigate a struggling but still fairly dangerous Angels lineup.
Some weird, weird west coast baseball.