DUNEDIN, Fla. – On the night of Nov. 30, Matt Shoemaker found himself back in California, crossing the country from his Michigan home to attend the wedding of Los Angeles Angels teammate Tyler Skaggs. There, he reconnected with the likes of Mike Trout, Garrett Richards and Kole Calhoun, friends from A-ball who climbed up to the majors together.
Times were good. “It’s a close, tight-knit family,” says Shoemaker.
Skaggs’ nuptials, however, happened to coincide with baseball’s deadline for teams to tender their arbitration-eligible players a 2019 contract. Though nothing was certain, Shoemaker’s sense was that the Angels planned to keep him, that they wouldn’t cast him off into free agency. Then he talked to general manager Billy Eppler, and suddenly he was gone from his only organization in 11 years of pro ball.
“We knew it’s a possibility, but given what was leading up to that week, in the talks with my agent (Canadian Fred Wray), it turned out to be a big surprise,” says Shoemaker. “(Wray) called me right after and he’s like, ‘We’re going to be fine, it’s all good. We’ll do our job and start talking to teams, see where the interest is and go from there.’”
Still, it was jarring. Not only because the teammates he’d grown up with in the game weren’t his teammates anymore. And not only because the bonds his wife Danielle had developed along the way would be strained by distance, and never quite the same again.
In the 2008 draft, 1,504 players were chosen. Shoemaker wasn’t among them. The Angels gave him an opportunity to pursue his lifelong dream. In 2014, he and the group of players with whom he started at the bottom helped win the American League West.
Surprise is the word he uses over and over. But he would never have accomplished all he had without the steadfast positivity that’s carried him throughout a remarkable journey that’s now brought him to the Toronto Blue Jays.
“Hey, you’ve got to build new relationships, right?” says Shoemaker. “Once all these things reveal themselves, blessing in disguise. Where I am now, I’m happy, the opportunity, this team, the talent – go out there and shock the world. It’s awesome stuff.”
One of the first challenges to Shoemaker’s positivity came in June 2008, when as a junior at Eastern Michigan University he received interest from eight teams, some of whom suggested they would select him in the Round 10-20 range.
Instead, he went undrafted.
At home with parents Karen and David during the three days of the draft, things were quiet. The excitement created by the air of possibility gave way to sadness, anger, frustration. Shoemaker, who had just completed his business degree, couldn’t wait to begin a pro ball career, and start chasing the big-leagues.
What happened, he asked himself over and over and over.
The January before the draft, he’d slipped on a patch of ice, landed on his left arm and broke the humerus bone, delaying his start to the season. His performance suffered as a result as he transitioned from the closer’s role as a sophomore to a starter, his hits and walks per nine rising, his strikeouts per nine decreasing.
That had played some role.
After a few days around the house to reset, Shoemaker started calling some of the scouts and crosscheckers he’d been in contact with to get more definitive answers. “All they said was, ‘Yeah, we’re a little surprised, too,’” he recalls. “Some of the highers-up said they want to maybe draft me as a senior and make me a senior sign. It was like, OK, it is what it is, I can’t do anything about it. Those sad days were already over. So now we’re positive.”
To that end, Shoemaker decided to play his senior season while starting an MBA. He suited up for the summer college season. He’d get himself drafted as a senior and chase the dream the next year.
Then in early August, a phone call came in from Todd Coryell, one of the assistant coaches at Eastern Michigan. He said Angels scout Joel Murrie had been poking around and wanted to talk.
The two connected, and Murrie told him, “‘I know you might want to go to the draft next year, but given your situation, we like you, we’d like to sign you. Is there any interest there?’” recalls Shoemaker.
He asked for a couple of days, talked things over with his parents and Danielle, who was still his girlfriend at the time, and, given that he already had a BBA in his back pocket, decided to go for it. On Aug. 14, 2008, he signed for $10,000.
“Just out of nowhere,” Shoemaker says. “I wanted the opportunity to get into pro ball. Here’s the opportunity.”
Shoemaker grinded through five years in the minors – moonlighting as a substitute teacher during the off-season early on – before gaining traction thanks to the development of a splitter to complement his fastball, slider and curverball. He debuted Sept. 20, 2013 with five shutout innings of two-hit ball against the Seattle Mariners.
The next year he helped the Angels win the AL West, pitching to a 3.04 ERA in 136 innings over 27 games, 20 of them starts, with a 16-4 record. He also finished second to slugger Jose Abreu in Rookie of the Year voting.
Shoemaker’s performance dipped in 2015 and rebounded in ’16, when he posted a 3.88 ERA over a career-high 160 innings before a Kyle Seager line drive during a Sept. 4, 2016 game hit him in the head. Emergency surgery to relieve the pressure on his brain followed hours later – a scar that runs from his ear to the top of his scalp offers a constant reminder – and the beginning of the forearm woes that led to his being non-tendered followed the next spring.
The initial pains in 2017 weren’t considered major, and Shoemaker figured, “I’d sit out a week and it would be fine.” Instead, the pain stayed the same, or got worse, and eventually, he underwent August surgery to release the radial nerve in his forearm.
“When that happens in-season, and you feel great but then this one little thing holds you back, it’s extremely frustrating,” says Shoemaker. “You can’t even put into words how frustrating it is. Then you go through the joy of the doctors saying they found what it is, we’re going to go in and fix it, get you back and you’ll be good to go in 2018.”
Shoemaker arrived the following spring feeling renewed, and over the course of camp experienced no issues. Things were fine until his first start of the season, a 5.2-inning outing at Oakland, when late in the start he felt the “exact same symptoms.”
“As soon as I started feeling it I was freaking out,” he says. “Like, seriously? Why am I feeling this exact same pain in the exact same spot?”
Two months later, after repeated MRIs showed no issue, Shoemaker was back under the knife, this time for exploratory surgery. He pinpointed that exact spot in his forearm where the pain was and that was where the doctor went looking. Right along the bone the surgeon found that the pronator tendon had split, the cause of a season and a half of pain finally revealed.
“They went back and looked for it. Every MRI didn’t show it,” says Shoemaker. “In those times, you just can’t get defeated. I take pride in being mentally strong and in hard work. Those things will get you so far in life, no matter what you do.”
By September, he was back in the majors, making six starts for the Angels, pitching to a 4.97 ERA over 25.1 innings, with six walks and 29 strikeouts. Though the sample size was very small, his walk and strikeout rates were both back to his career norms.
The Blue Jays, believing in what they saw in September, signed him Dec. 28 to a $3.5-million, one-year deal with $250,000 bonuses for each of 150, 160, 170 and 180 innings pitched.
As the first Grapefruit League game of the spring approaches, pitching coach Pete Walker says he’s “full speed ahead.”
“He’s got some deception, he’s got some funk in his delivery,” says Walker. “His secondary stuff is really good and the split was always a pitch guys on our team had a tough time squaring up. His slider carries the zone and has the look of his heater. That’s an important pitch for him and when that’s getting some weak contact, he’s in pretty good shape. The fastball plays as well, he’s aggressive in the zone and he forces contact.”
Adds Justin Smoak, a career 0-for-5 against Shoemaker: “That split-changeup thing he’s got, that was definitely his pitch. He could throw it for strikes and when he needed to, he could make it disappear for a swing and miss in the dirt. Hopefully he’s ready to go.”
At 32, Shoemaker joins the rebuilding Blue Jays as an elder statesman on the rebound, determined to show last September was a true new beginning. He’s one of only 11 players 30 or above in a camp where the focus is all on the future.
As he scans a clubhouse stocked with young players like Ryan Borucki, Danny Jansen, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, Reese McGuire, Brandon Drury and Anthony Alford, many of whom have risen through the Blue Jays system together, he sees some parallels to his rise with Trout, Richards and Calhoun, among others.
“You can see the guys and learning where guys have come from, guys from other organizations, guys who have been Blue Jays their whole career, you have that relationship,” says Shoemaker. “In a new clubhouse you want to build that camaraderie with guys because when you have those relationships, you play better and you win more. That’s just how it works. You can see some of that here, and in a short period of time, too.”
How long he’s a part of things is to be determined.
Shoemaker still has another year of arbitration eligibility left, so the Blue Jays have contractual control of him for 2020 if they choose. How he pitches this year will certainly settle that, the latest challenge in a career full of them since he earned that business degree at Eastern Michigan.
Asked what he’d be doing if the Angels didn’t sign him 11 years ago, he replies, “good question,” and pauses. “I don’t know.”
He’s more than happy that he’s never needed to find out.