Michigan's Shoemaker now a mainstay for Angels

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Anaheim, Calif. — You see what he did in 2014, when he went 16-4 and helped carry the Angels into the playoffs. You see what he’s doing now after a rough start to the season, looking dominant and striking out 23 batters in his last two starts.

You see the pitcher he’s become now and it’s unfathomable that he went undrafted in the 2008 MLB draft. Fifty rounds, 1,504 players taken and not one named Matt Shoemaker.

Nobody believed it at the time, either, especially not Shoemaker and his family who followed every heart-wrenching pick of that draft from their home in Trenton, and especially not his coach at Eastern Michigan, Jake Boss, Jr.

“It was a real shock to us and his family when he wasn’t drafted,” said Boss, who just completed his eighth season as Michigan State coach. “Just an unbelievable story, one of the neatest stories you’re ever going to hear about a kid who took advantage of an opportunity and the next thing you know he’s in the big leagues.”

Contrary to popular belief, Shoemaker, who will face his hometown Tigers today in the finale of this three-game series, did not fall through the proverbial cracks. Despite what he’s made himself into, there were legitimate and tangible reasons Shoemaker was by-passed by 30 Major League teams in 2008.

Shoemaker set a school record with 14 saves in 2007. He was part of an Eastern Michigan team that won the Mid-American Conference and played a NCAA regional tournament game. But before the 2008 season, his junior year of eligibility, he slipped on some ice and broke his left arm.

“In the (scouts) defense, at the beginning of the year he was rehabbing and trying to get back, trying to get himself back in shape,” Boss said. “It’s just one of those things. A lot of guys saw him throw early and he wasn’t quite ready yet.”

That was part of it, for sure. But there were plenty of scouts, like the Tigers’ Detroit-area scout Mark Monahan, who watched him from the time he was at Trenton High through his last start at Eastern.

Shoemaker’s biggest problem was velocity. In an era, especially for the Tigers, where the premium was on power arms (Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya were the standard at the time), Shoemaker was barely hitting the upper 80s.

“I saw him in high school a couple of times and then again, of course, at Eastern,” Monahan said. “His velocity never really jumped out at you. He was a pretty good pitcher, but his velocity didn’t get better until that following summer.”

His body didn’t shout big-leaguer, either, at the time.

“At Trenton he was kind of pudgy,” Monahan said. “He thinned out a little bit at Eastern but he was still a little on the heavy side. His velocity whenever I’d see him, it topped out at 88, which isn’t bad. But our guys wanted guys who threw a little harder, unless you were left-handed.”

Monahan and other scouts liked him, though. He clearly knew how to pitch. But they had their orders. Power arms only.

“It was league-wide,” Monahan said. “Everybody wants power arms. Dave Dombrowski (Tigers president and general manager at the time) was heavy on it. The draft is coming up now and if a kid is throwing 88, it’s still going to be hard for that kid to get signed unless he’s left-handed.”

Shoemaker had other issues working against him in 2008, as well. Like the fact Eastern started the season 0-17 before he got fully healthy.

“He started the game we finally won and stopped the streak,” Boss said. “Against Wright State. He had closed two days before and gave up a walk-off home run. Two days later he’s starting and beating Wright State.”

Some scouts, too, weren’t altogether sure Shoemaker was leaving school. He had already earned his degree but had another year of eligibility. Boss, who was leaving Eastern and had been hired at Michigan State, advocated for Shoemaker to play his senior season.

“I remember talking to Matt and his dad right after the draft,” he said. “Everyone was a basket case. We were all shocked. I remember telling him, ‘Do what you want to do, but in my opinion, go back and start your Master’s Degree and enjoy that last year. Because you’re never going to have it again.’

“He still wasn’t sure. He was still reeling from the draft. I remember his dad saying, ‘I can’t believe this happened.’ And I said, ‘I agree. It doesn’t make any sense.’ ”

Monahan said the Tigers, too, were hoping he’d return to Eastern.

“I don’t want to say anything negative about him. We liked him,” Monahan said. “We would have had more interest in him the next year but he went out that summer and pitched really well, got signed and the rest is history.”

Everything came together for Shoemaker in the summer after the draft. His arm and body were finally healthy and his velocity started to creep over 90 mph. His split-fingered pitch, which is his out-pitch today, was biting then, too.

That’s when Angels scout Joel Murrie comes into the picture. The Angels needed some arms to fill out their rosters in the lower minor league levels. He talked to Todd Coryell, son of long-time Eastern coach Roger Coryell, and Todd recommended Shoemaker.

Here was the conversation between Murrie and Shoemaker, as relayed to the Los Angeles Times by Murrie.

“I called Matt and asked him if he was interested. I said, ‘What are you looking for?’ He said, ‘$30,000.’ I told him we were pretty far apart. He said, ‘By how much?’ And I said, ‘$30,000.’”

But Shoemaker was hungry for the opportunity.

“An undrafted free agent signing after his junior year of eligibility, you don’t see that a whole lot,” Boss said. “Usually these are seniors with no other options. He had another option.”

But after pitching well in the summer, he got $10,000 out of the Angels and began his career.

“It’s a great story for him,” Monahan said. “Just wish we could’ve got him.”