Matt Shoemaker Gives the Angels 5 Good Starters

In the American League there are only two starting rotations in which all five players have an ERA under 4.00. The Oakland A’s have a 2.87 ERA from their starting rotation, and at present the starting five goes Drew Pomeranz (0.95 ERA as a starter, 1.38 overall), Tommy Milone (3.50), Jesse Chavez (2.78), Scott Kazmir (2.36) and Sonny Gray (2.31). That is the best rotation in the American League, but today I’m interested in the second best.

Let’s start with the basics. The Angels have the second-lowest ERA in the AL at 3.45, which is more shocking to me than the A’s residing in first. Veterans Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson hum along like fine Swiss watches, no age-related decline in sight, and 26-year-old Garrett Richards has risen to their level, but with some of the hardest stuff of any starter in the league. Tyler Skaggs is a classic groundball pitcher operating in front of an improved Angels infield this season. A healthy Pujols at first is a savvy and fundamentally sound vacuum. Weaver is the only guy on the staff who isn’t a groundball pitcher; like Matt Cain in San Francisco, he has a penchant for inducing ever-so-weak flyballs.

The ERAs (and other statistics) of the Angels’ staff are as such:
– Weaver (2.99, 72.1 IP, .225 BABIP)
– Wilson (3.05, 76.2 IP, .259 BABIP)
– Richards (3.00, 66.0 IP, .277 BABIP)
– Skaggs (3.97, 65.2 IP, .273 BABIP)
Hector Santiago (5.19, 34.2 IP, .307 BABIP)
– Matt Shoemaker (3.38, 21.1 IP, .267 BABIP)

The recent if abbreviated switch from Santiago to Shoemaker is clearly a great boon. Assuming the Angels settle on Shoemaker going forward, the weak spot from their rotation is gone. Some teams are forced to throw a replacement player every five days, basically forfeiting a large share of games over the season. Just ask Mariners fans about Brandon Maurer. Shoemaker is no slouch, and while his BABIP is low in a leaguewide context it is average for this team.

The Angels have fielded the ball well this season, resulting in a low BABIP for all their pitchers. Mike Trout is a great centerfielder, which is crucial, but he was great last year as well, so the change must be some combination of other factors: Pujols’ health, Freese replacing Callaspo at third, Collin Cowgill receiving more time in the outfield thanks to Josh Hamilton’s injury. Due to return imminently, Hamilton could throw off this precarious synergy. His bat is still lively but he’s not as good as Cowgill in the field. Still, he is a former centerfielder, and those guys can usually handle the corners pretty well into their mid-30s.

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You’ll see that Ultimate Zone Rating–the go-to advanced defensive statistic–mirrors Out Percentage pretty closely over the last three years in Anaheim. Out Percentage is basically not-BABIP; I calculated it as (1 – BABIP). It measures the percentage of balls in play that did not result in a hit. This year the Angels convert more balls into outs than they did in either of the previous two seasons, though whether they will continue to do so at this high of a rate is difficult to predict. I will say, however, that the Angels have the same groundball-to-flyball ratio as they did in 2012 and 2013, and that the biggest noticeable difference I can see is a sharp drop in line drives. Angels starters this year give up liners only 17.7% of the time (Line Drives/Total Balls in Play), down 4% from a year ago and 2.4% from two years ago. Last year, the spread of LD% for all teams was 23.4% at the upper end to 19.5% at the bottom. Regression will strike but the results may not suffer all that much.

All this talk about BABIP and outs recorded by the defense is especially pertinent to Shoemaker. Coming into the season he wasn’t a very valuable prospect. He had spent two whole years in Triple-A without much to show for it, his ERA was 5.65 one year and 4.64 the next. At 26, he was as old or older than his peers and opponents, and progress appeared unlikely: he’s made five starts for AAA Salt Lake this year with an ERA of 6.31. But I am a huge believer in the power of run-scoring environments, and Shoemaker’s case is illustrative of their importance. Salt Lake is a member of the Pacific Coast League, the most offense-friendly league in North America. (Probably. The Cuban National League is a mystery to most of us.) Not only that, but Salt Lake City is at elevation, with a considerable lack of humidity. Batters on the Salt Lake Bees with at least 100 PA had a line of .286/.359/.442 last, basically what Hunter Pence is doing now. It was a good place for hitters and as a result some of Shoemaker’s talent was obscured. Now that he’s got a little help in the field he may continue being a big help for the Angels.

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