Healthy Shoemaker excited for starting role

February 22nd, 2021

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- It's fortunate that can joke about his injury history, which frankly reads more like that of a martial arts practitioner than that of a Major League pitcher with skull fractures, nerve compression in his forearm and a torn ACL leading the way.

"We were joking around the other day, saying, hey, we’ve had three of those freak things, so we’re done," Shoemaker said. "We’re good to go. We’re healthy, ready to go, and hopefully they never happen again. It is what it is."

The Twins are counting on it. Not only did they bring Shoemaker in on a one-year, $2 million deal, but they're already prepared to pencil him into their starting five as Spring Training begins, manager Rocco Baldelli said. If everyone remains healthy, that already resolves what could otherwise have been a competition for the fifth rotation spot that could also have involved young right-hander Randy Dobnak.

"We signed Matt to join us and pitch out of our rotation," Baldelli said.

It's not tough to see why: Beyond the injury history that limited Shoemaker to 18 starts over the last three seasons, there's the pitcher with a swing-and-miss splitter and the career 3.86 ERA and limited playoff experience with both the Angels and Blue Jays. Baldelli and the Twins caught their first glimpse of that ability in an extended bullpen session of 40-plus pitches Sunday in which he impressed with his command and movement with several different pitches.

"He makes the ball move in ways that you’re not really used to seeing, and in a lot of ways, different is better a lot of the time," Baldelli said. "There’s a lot of guys with really good stuff but when you bring something a little bit different, a little bit of funk to the table, delivery and arm action-wise, and some stuff that -- you bend that ball in a pretty unique way, you’re going to be OK."

He's ready to go, then, alongside Kenta Maeda, José Berríos, Michael Pineda and J.A. Happ in a contending rotation, which he mentioned was a priority for him in his search for a new team as the offseason dragged on without him finding a match in Minnesota until last week.

"[Starting was] very important," Shoemaker said. "I want to contribute to the ballclub, but I know that what I do best is go out there and toeing the rubber and starting games. I know what I can bring to the table. It’s just a matter of going out there and doing it, you know? Staying healthy."

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In his first meeting with the media, it certainly appeared as though Shoemaker is the kind of motivated, eager-to-learn pitcher who works best with the Twins' organization -- one who seeks to absorb and process unfamiliar information to aid in his continued improvement. He noted that came across in his conversations with Baldelli, Johnson and general manager Thad Levine before he signed with the Twins, who struck him as an "amazing" fit.

Shoemaker, 34, said that he's been having daily conversations with Johnson since joining the team and has engaged with Maeda, the reigning Cy Young runner-up, about the mental aspects of the game and about the offspeed pitches they both throw -- in particular, the split-fingered pitch that they have both used successfully throughout their MLB careers. (Maeda uses it as a changeup, while Shoemaker's splitter was his most-used pitch last season.)

"That’s what’s always fun," Shoemaker said. "I’ve only been here a few days now, but when you can actually sit down with your fellow teammates, especially pitchers, and see what they do great and what you can do to incorporate it into your game."

That's the pitch that has been a key to Shoemaker's career since he first started throwing it as a 14-year-old needing a changeup before it evolved over the years, with more split in his grip leading to more depth to the pitch -- along with the release adjustments that naturally come with a big league career. Last season, batters swung through that offering 34.4 percent of the time. A year before that, it was 43.2 percent.

Twins fans should see it often. There's not yet any special plan in place to limit Shoemaker's innings or ramp-up during Spring Training or the regular season as a response to his injury history or lesser recent workload, though the club will carefully monitor his condition all the same.

The hope is that Shoemaker can leave that bad luck behind him and -- finally -- just pitch.

"He’s obviously coming in very good shape and is ready to go," Baldelli said.