I'm Gonna Say It: The Twins Should Make Matt Shoemaker a Reliever
Sometimes I think I’m the king of dumb videos on the internet, so I thought why not combine two of my favorite things: being the dumb video king and also writing about baseball.
Here’s the video in question. I’m not even sure how to set this up, so I’m just going to ask you to hit play:
If you’ve followed my Twitter account for more than about 10 minutes you’ve probably seen me use a still of this in some form or fashion.
So weekly, I’m going to use this as an excuse to write about something I’m thinking the Minnesota Twins need to do, in my opinion.
For the next subject of such series, it’s my opinion — I’m gonna say it — the Twins should give Matt Shoemaker a look in the bullpen instead of DFA’ing him altogether.
I can already tell from the boos and hissing from the crowd that this won’t be popular, but I’m ready.
Shoemaker has struggled mightily with the Twins through 50.1 innings. He’s allowed 33 earned runs (5.90 ERA), 10 home runs (1.8 per nine) and has struck out just 33 batters against 19 walks.
Randy Dobnak more than deserves to take his rotation spot once Kenta Maeda is healthy enough to return, but the common refrain would be that the Twins should simply wash their hands of Shoemaker rather than give the 34-year-old veteran some work in the bullpen.
But hear me out; there are some splits that work in Shoemaker’s favor to keep him around in shorter bursts.
First, he’s been effective against right-handed batters. While he can’t be shielded from lefties altogether with the three-batter-minimum rule, he’s held righties to a .230/.278/.420 line on the season. That could work in the bullpen.
Also, and this might end up being the most convincing point, he’s a completely different pitcher for each trip he takes through the opponents’ batting order:
First time through: .165/.236/.266 line against (.502 OPS)
Second time through: .333/.386/.580 line against (.966 OPS)
Third time through: .351/.442/.703 line against (1.145 OPS)
We can go a little further into the weeds to find that he basically hits a wall once he hits his 50th pitch of an outing — something he’d rarely, if ever, do in even a long-relief role:
Pitches 1-25: .214/.281/.357 line against (.638 OPS)
Pitches 26-50: .180/.254/.328 line against (.582 OPS)
Pitches 51-75: .407/.467/.648 line against (1.115 OPS)
Pitches 76+: .296/.367/.704 line against (1.071 OPS)
Nine of the 10 home runs Shoemaker has allowed this season have come in his second or third time through the order. Six of the 10 have come from pitch 51 on.
From a pitch-splits perspective, there’s stuff he can work with here. He throws his split more than any other pitch, and opponents are hitting just .228/.253/.392 against it (84 wRC+). His slider is workable but not great, as opponents are hitting .232/.267/.500 against it (109 wRC+). Every other pitch he throws has a wRC+ of 200 or close to it.
For his career, his splitter has a wRC+ of 63; everything else is 125 or higher.
So focusing on his splitter and slider has proven to be the strategy this season, but he hasn’t been able to simply abandon his fastballs this season in the rotation.
Could he in the bullpen?
From what I can tell via Sportradar, there have been 235 relievers who’ve thrown at least 200 pitches this season. Only eight of them have thrown their splitter at least 10 percent of the time. Of those eight, four also throw a slider at least 20 percent of the time.
Let’s look at the guys who throw their splitter at least 10 percent of the time, add in the ones who sliders — six of the eight — and see what their overall profiles look like:
PHI MR Hector Neris - 53.1 percent split/1.8 percent slider = 54.9 percent total
BOS MR Hirokazu Sawamura - 35.6 percent split/20.1 percent slider = 55.7 percent total
HOU MR Ryne Stanek - 27.4 percent split/12.1 percent slider = 39.5 percent total
TOR MR Rafael Dolis - 12.6 percent split/20.9 percent slider = 33.5 percent total
WAS MR Kyle Finnegan - 11.8 percent split/20.5 percent slider = 32.3 percent total
NYY CL Aroldis Chapman - 10.9 percent split/21.8 percent slider = 32.7 percent total
The two I excluded were Pittsburgh’s David Bednar and Los Angeles’ (AL) Junior Guerra, as they don’t throw sliders whatsoever.
I’m inclined to throw Chapman out altogether because he’s a unicorn. Not only is he left-handed and Shoemaker is not, but he throws the ever-loving hell out of the ball — and Shoemaker does not.
All five non-Chapman pitchers are having at least respectable seasons at least on the surface. Only Dolis has an ERA over 4.00 (4.76), and Neris and Sawamura are both under 3.00.
I feel like Sawamura is the one to hone in on here — at least from a pitch usage standpoint.
Even in a move to the bullpen, Shoemaker probably can’t match Sawamura’s pure velocity (95.7 mph average fastball, 91.4 mph average split). Shoemaker has touched 94.8 mph this year with his four-seamer according to Fangraphs but the split is a much slower version (average 85.3 mph, peak 88.0).
Even still, those are groundball pitches for Shoemaker (58.8 percent groundball rate on the split, 54.5 percent on the slider) and each has induced swinging strikes at a fairly healthy rate (16.1 percent on the split, 12.3 percent on the slider).
Dropping down to just a slider and a splitter probably isn’t feasible, but it’s not unreasonable to think he could throw them a combined 50-60 percent of the time.
But let’s get a little more grainy here.
On Shoemaker’s first 25 pitches of every start, Shoemaker has allowed the following splits (according to Sportradar):
Four-seam fastball - .500 batting average/.750 slugging percentage
Slider - .100 batting average/.100 slugging percentage
Splitter - .238 batting average/.476 slugging percentage
Sinker - .143 batting average/.286 slugging percentage
In other words, Shoemaker could quite easily cut out the four-seam fastball altogether and roll with a three-pitch mix of the slider and splitter with an occasional sinker and probably see improved results.
But if Shoemaker starts out in the long role in this instance, maybe he does end up getting closer to that 50-pitch threshold.
Here’s how his pitches look from pitch 1-50 of every start this season:
Four-seam fastball - .389 batting average/.667 slugging percentage
Slider - .114 batting average/.200 slugging percentage
Splitter - .133 batting average/.244 slugging percentage
Sinker - .300 batting average/.500 slugging percentage
So things do get a little shakier on the sinker from pitches 26-50 — .385 batting average/.615 slugging percentage — but the slider and splitter both more than hold their own.
Keep in mind as well, Shoemaker would almost never face a batter more than once unless it was in a long-man role — at which point it’s more about getting work and possibly keeping the game close as opposed to holding any sort of lead.
I’m not saying it would work for sure, but I think it’s worth a try. Give Dobnak the innings Shoemaker is pitching now, give Shoemaker the innings Luke Farrell is pitching now and make Farrell the new Cody Stashak (sixth inning but not super high leverage yet).
The Twins don’t have that much invested in Shoemaker. But they also don’t have anyone beating down the door to the point where they can’t give Shoemaker a shot in a new role. But he simply can’t be making starts anymore. That ship has sailed.