When the Angels lost Garrett Richards for the season on Aug. 20 to a knee injury, the immediate concern was how his absence in the rotation would affect the team's division and postseason hopes. At the time, Los Angeles held a slim 1 1/2-game lead in the AL West over the Athletics, and the Angels were only a day away from a meeting in Oakland with their division foes. Richards' absence seemed especially ill-timed, coming on the heels of Tyler Skaggs' season-ending elbow injury and with the likes of C.J. Wilson and Jered Weaver battling inconsistency. You could be forgiven, then, for assuming Richards' injury was going to swing the AL West in favor of the A's.
Instead, after Sunday's 8-1 win over Oakland, the Angels seem to have closed the book on the division in their favor. By sweeping the four-game set in Los Angeles, the Angels have grabbed a resounding five-game lead in the AL West with 26 games to go. And they've done that thanks to an unlikely starter who's taken Richards' place as the staff ace: Matt Shoemaker.
On Sunday, Shoemaker continued one of the hottest rolls in baseball, blanking the A's for seven innings while striking out seven. That extends his scoreless innings streak to 23 2/3 innings across four starts and gives him three consecutive starts with at least seven innings pitched and no earned runs. The last Angels pitcher to do that: Nolan Ryan, in 1976. Since Richards went down, Shoemaker has blanked the Red Sox, Marlins and A's. Against Boston, he came within seven outs of a no-hitter, finishing the night with just one hit allowed in 7 2/3 frames.
It's an extraordinary hot stretch for a pitcher who was looked over by literally every team in baseball dozens of times. A product of Eastern Michigan University, Shoemaker went undrafted after his senior season in 2008, but the Angels signed him as an amateur free agent for a mere $10,000, and Shoemaker began to climb the organizational ladder. He made a name for himself in 2011 by posting a 2.48 ERA in 156 1/3 innings in Double-A, then struggled the next two years in Triple-A before finally getting the big-league call in 2013 with a spot start in late September. Originally in the bullpen at the start of the season, Shoemaker bounced between the majors and Triple-A throughout April and May before settling for good into the rotation in mid-June.
Though his first few starts were rough, Shoemaker settled into a groove after July 21, when Mike Scioscia announced the right-hander would stay in the rotation in place of Hector Santiago, who was demoted to the bullpen. Shoemaker has yet to allow more than two earned runs in any of his seven starts since that day, striking out 39 against just five walks in 45 1/3 innings (not counting a three-inning relief appearance on Aug. 9). The Angels have won all but one of those starts.
Shoemaker's success is tied directly to that impeccable control. On the season, he boasts a superb 1.61 walks-per-nine ratio. If he had enough innings to qualify, he would have the 10th-best BB/9 rate in baseball, better than the likes of Madison Bumgarner and Chris Sale. Shoemaker also boasts a strong strikeout-per-nine ratio of 8.8, which would be ahead of, among others, Cole Hamels and Jeff Samardzija. On top of that, Shoemaker manages to avoid giving up home runs (0.99 home-run-per-nine ratio on the year) and doesn't give up much in the way of loud contact; his line-drive rate is only 19.7 percent, and his batting average on balls in play is .285.
What helps Shoemaker avoid any contact, be it loud or soft, is an excellent whiff rate. Shoemaker's swinging-strike percentage is a terrific 11.3, thanks in large part to what may be one of the best split-finger fastballs in the game. Shoemaker goes to the splitter often, throwing it 21.6 percent of the time, according to FanGraphs. Only three pitchers with more than 100 innings pitched on the season have thrown the splitter more often: Hisashi Iwakuma (27.6 percent), Hiroki Kuroda (25.8) and Masahiro Tanaka (25). What's more, Shoemaker's splitter is a legitimate weapon, getting a swing-and-a-miss 23 percent of the time he throws it. By comparison with other splitter-heavy pitchers,Tanaka's offering gets swings-and-misses 29 percent of the time, Iwakuma gets whiffs at a 19 percent clip, and Kuroda at 18 percent.
The splitter is Shoemaker's best pitch, and it shows in his results: Against that pitch, opposing batters are hitting a mere .156 with a .237 slugging percentage and 62 strikeouts in 135 at-bats. That's helped make up for less-than-great results on Shoemaker's other pitches, most notably his two-seam fastball, which has been tattooed to the tune of a .337 average. What's more, Shoemaker's splitter has become a true out pitch. In two-strike counts, Shoemaker throws his splitter 52 percent of the time against lefties and 42 percent of the time against righties.
With a pitch of that caliber in his arsenal, it's no surprise that Shoemaker has emerged as the Angels' best pitcher in the wake of Richards' injury. And if Shoemaker and the Angels keep up their good stretch of play, the former undrafted free agent could wind up being the difference for a Los Angeles team that looks primed for World Series contention.