September 12, 2014
The Angels have the best record in baseball, fueled by the most prolific offense in the game. The pitching has been considered a weakness since before the season started, and though the team addressed its issues in the bullpen, injuries to Garrett Richards and Tyler Skaggs have tested the mettle of the rotation.
The usual suspects sit atop the Anaheim staff, with Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson holding down the fort for a group of pitchers who have gone through the revolving door from the bullpen to the rotation this season. Weaver has continued his slide down the performance curve, with a career-worst strikeout-to-walk ratio and a fastball that clocks in at an average of just 87.4 mph, though his offense has covered for some of his mistakes en route to a 16-8 record. Wilson has particularly struggled this season, having been knocked around the yard to the tune of a 4.64 ERA with the highest hit and homer rates since he became a regular starter in 2010. Richards was the perfect complement to Weaver and Wilson as a fireballer whose pure stuff required a tremendous adjustment from opposing hitters, but his gruesome knee injury spoiled the team's best-laid plans.
Some unlikely players have responded to this adversity, and the Halos have also concocted a solution in which reliever Cory Rasmus will start throw about 50 pitches at the beginning of a ball game before being lifted for a bucket brigade of relievers, a strategy they used yesterday for the third straight time through the rotation. The starting staff is being otherwise held together by a pair of pitchers who were not even part of the rotation back in May, but who are now looking like potential playoff starters for this juggernaut ballclub. The patchwork staff is a distinct vulnerability for a team with plans to go deep into the postseason, but the recent performances of Matt Shoemaker and Hector Santiago have answered the prayers of the Angel faithful.
Shoemaker started the season pitching out of the big-league bullpen, but in mid-April the club sent him to Triple-A Salt Lake to be stretched out as a starter (as he had been up to that point in his career). Less than a month later he was back in the bigs, and though his stint in the PCL was less than forgiving, Shoemaker has since been a revelation in the rotation. A key to his success has been his control of the strike zone, as he has allowed just 1.7 walks per nine, minimizing the damage from hits and homers allowed, and fueling a strikeout-to-walk ratio of five-to-one.
The raw velocity won't catch opposing hitters by surprise, but Shoemaker's strength lies in his ability to command an arsenal of pitches that dart in every direction. The sinker has legitimate arm-side run, he has the slider that breaks away from like-handed hitters, the bottom falls out of his splitter late in the flight path, and he will also drop the occasional slow curve to start an at-bat. The split is his weapon of choice with two strikes, and the pitch is responsible for more than half of Shoemaker's strikeouts this season.
Shoemaker has a compact delivery with a a quick arm path after he breaks hand from glove. The motion is quick and efficient in terms of balance and repetition, with good stability in all three planes and a consistent pace to the plate. The torque is created by late hip rotation that fires just before he triggers trunk rotation, thus minimizing his hip-shoulder separation, though he is able to time these rotational phases with greater regularity than most pitchers who utilize the same type of hip-whip strategy.
The right-hander maintains a tall release point, hovering around 6.5 feet, and the raised trajectory is tied to the minimal flex in the knees as well as late spine tilt as he approaches release point. The sudden tilt follows a delivery that is well balanced into foot strike, indicating an intentional manipulation of his arm slot rather than a lack of functional strength, and the late imbalance is further manifested by a back foot that pops off the ground prematurely. The strategy aids his elevated release, but neither the stiff front leg nor the late tilt is doing him any favors for generating extension. Both elements contribute to a relatively shallow release point, and his quick pattern of lift-and-stride further mutes his extension by limiting his stride distance.
Acquired from the Chicago White Sox during the offseason, Santiago struggled on the mound for the Halos during the first half of the year, carrying a 4.50 ERA into the All-Star break. That mark has fallen to 2.04 since the Midsummer Classic despite a paltry 1.9 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and the peripheral numbers indicate that the sudden alteration in run prevention was more mirage than reality. The first-half performance included a temporary demotion to the bullpen in mid-May, the second consecutive year that he has been on a yo-yo between roles midseason, but he has been a rotation fixture for the last half-dozen turns. The usage pattern is also reflective of his stamina, and Santiago has only surpassed the century mark four times this season as the Angels have monitored his per-game workloads.
Santiago's repertoire is similar to Shoemaker's, though the southpaw's approach is rooted more in velocity differential than subtle movement, and his breaking pitches have been less effective than his fastball-change combination over the past two seasons. The changeup is used most often against hitters with the platoon advantage, while he opts for the hammer three times more frequently against left-handed hitters, a trend that is common throughout baseball. The fastball is modest in terms of raw velocity, perhaps playing up a notch due to his left-handedness, but Santiago is not afraid to sit on the heat when he gets two strikes on a hitter: The four-seamer has accounted for roughly two-thirds of his punchouts this season.
As is common for left-handed pitchers, Santiago has a very closed stride, such that he steps towards the left-hand batter's box before redirecting his energy toward the plate. He finishes with a crossfire of kinetic energy that causes him to drift toward third base after release, indicating that the closed-off approach is not in line with his ideal signature. His stability earns high marks throughout the delivery, as he maintains a solid center of gravity through the lift phase and finishes with excellent posture at release point, and the stability has been much more consistent in 2014 than it was last season.
There is some turbulence in his delivery during the stride phase, as Santiago has an abrupt gear change with added ferocity after max leg lift. This element can be volatile and will interfere with his timing, while the left-hander's late hip rotation is tied to a hip-whip strategy that further exaggerates the issue when his pace to the plate is shaky. The release point is much lower than that of Shoemaker, coming in around 5.7 feet on average, but he has the strong posture and enough flex in the knees to track forward and help aid extension. The closed stride has an adverse impact on his relative distance at release point, and the inconsistent momentum undermines his balance in terms of his repetition, but Santiago has the raw ingredients for a plus delivery down the road.