Matt Shoemaker is latest patient for Twins' spin-rate doctor

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Phil Miller, Star Tribune
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FORT MYERS, FLA. – Having watched him create a shutdown bullpen out of matchsticks and Legos, having seen him unearth Cy Young potential in Kenta Maeda's right arm, it seems plausible that the Twins signed Matt Shoemaker this spring just to throw another quadratic-equation-shaped challenge at their Pitch Mechanic, Wes Johnson.

Basically, let's see if the spin-rate doctor can improve a pitch that has already fooled batters for two decades.

"I've heard only great things," Shoemaker said upon arriving in the Twins' laboratory on Monday, "which is why I'm so excited to be here."

The Twins are excited, too, given that the 34-year-old righthander goes through extended periods of, say, Walker Buehler-dom, where his split-finger fastball dives sharply into the dirt and lifts Shoemaker into baseball's upper class. That those thrilling interludes have been juxtaposed with an unusual length of time wearing hospital gowns is a problem perhaps out of Johnson's control.

But the splitter? It's already broken in and well-worn.

"The reason why I've been able to get a good grasp on it [is], I started throwing it when I was 14," Shoemaker said of the pitch the Twins expect will put him on the mound every fifth day this season. "I never had a great changeup, and so my dad and some other coaches, we were just messing around with grips, and that's how it started. You start messing with the grip, release points, seeing what the ball actually does, movement. Your body matures. You get stronger. And everything from that that point is [why it's] where it is today."

So where is it? Right where batters can't reach it. Shoemaker jammed the baseball between his index and middle fingers 145 times last season, or one-third of all the pitches he threw, and let it go with the same effort as his fastball. It traveled roughly 85 mph, according to MLB's Statcast, or 7 mph slower than his hard stuff, and spun about half as fast. The result: a diving action as it reached the plate, and often a lunging swing by a helpless hitter.

Fourteen-year-old Matt Shoemaker would have been amazed.

"It just kept evolving, with a further split, more depth on the ball," he said. "It's got a sharper break now. I can manipulate it certain ways depending on the situation, hitter, whatever it is."

Thus manipulated, batters swung and missed the pitch 34 percent of the time last season, and when they managed to make contact, they batted .143. That struck the Twins as well worth a $2 million gamble on a one-year contract; the potential for hitting a jackpot seems real.

"He definitely can manipulate the ball. He makes the ball move in ways that you're not really used to seeing," Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said Monday after watching Shoemaker's first 40 bullpen pitches as a Twin. "There are a lot of guys with really good stuff, but when you bring something a little bit different, delivery and arm-action — you bend that ball in a pretty unique way, you're going to be OK."

OK is good enough for a fifth starter, which the Twins see as Shoemaker's floor. But this is a pitcher who posted a 3.04 ERA and won 16 games as a rookie in 2014, a guy who allowed just five earned runs in his first five starts for Toronto in 2019 before tearing a knee ligament during a rundown, ending his season. This is a veteran who could outpitch his contract.

Enter Johnson, the Twins' pitching coach, who already has some ideas for tinkering with his new project.

"I think this guy is primed and ready to have a good year. He's got good stuff and he throws strikes," Johnson said. Shoemaker posted a below-average 4.71 ERA last season, but Johnson noted that five of his six starts came against playoff teams, four of them against division champs Tampa Bay and Atlanta. "This guy knows how to get good hitters out. We're excited."

Yes, everyone is excited in February, before the freak accidents happen, before Shoemaker stumbles executing a rundown, or a nerve in his elbow becomes compressed, or he gets hit in the head by a line drive.

"It's frustrating, to say the least," of his five-year run of odd injuries. "I've had maybe three" that had little to do with pitching, he said, "and three of those, freak things, [now] we're done. [I'm] healthy, ready to go, and hopefully they never happen again."