The problem that plagued Matt Shoemaker last season revisited him on his second pitch of the spring — which was hit over the right-field fence Wednesday at Scottsdale Stadium.
The 29-year-old Angels right-hander rose from obscurity to record 16 victories and a 3.04 earned-run average in 2014. Angels Manager Mike Scioscia called him that season’s savior. He returned earlier than expected from injury to produce the only positive playoff performance on the team.
And then, much like the San Francisco starter he opposed Wednesday in the Angels’ Cactus League opener, Shoemaker’s 2015 was significantly worse: a 7-10 record, a 4.46 ERA. Unlike Jeff Samardzija, whom the Giants guaranteed $90 million this off-season despite a two-run increase in his ERA, Shoemaker must compete for a spot in his team’s rotation in 2016.
What will determine whether he wins one, he believes, is his pitch location. He found success two years ago by pounding the bottom fifth of the strike zone. He rarely surpassed 91 mph with a pitch, but if he aimed low hitters hammered them into the ground.
He felt his results last year reflected his failure to hit the low target as often.
“There were a lot of little things, but overall it was just more up in the zone,” Shoemaker said. “I am not a guy who throws 100 miles an hour. If you do, you can pitch up in the zone more and not get hurt. For me, you’re down in the zone, you’re fine.”
To stay down, he must visualize hitting his catcher’s glove before he parts with the ball.
“That’s really what it is for me,” he said. “Sometimes your mind floats away from you, but if I focus on that glove I’m going to hit it nine times out of 10.”
He did not hit Carlos Perez’s glove with the elevated fastball he threw to Conor Gillaspie for his second pitch of the Angels’ spring opener against the San Francisco Giants.
“Solo homers are not going to beat you too often, so that’s not a big deal,” Shoemaker said. “But I have to learn from that. I don’t want to give up homers ever. It was frustrating, but at the same time I know how to fix it.
“Now it’s just a matter of doing it.”
For the first time since his freshman year of high school, Kaleb Cowart is playing second base.
He has been splitting time equally between second and third base, the position he played exclusively for the first five seasons of his pro career. The team asked fellow prospect Kyle Kubitza to practice at second last September, and they added Cowart to the transition list this spring.
Veteran Yunel Escobar is expected to man third this season, but Johnny Giavotella’s spot at second base is more vulnerable.
“You’re always looking at players and versatility,” Manager Mike Scioscia said. “You’re looking at opportunities to see if a third baseman can play second or fill in at shortstop or play the corners. All these things widen a player’s ability to receive opportunities.”
Not long ago, many Angels officials envisioned Cowart as a franchise cornerstone at third base by now.
A first-round selection in the 2010 draft, he entered spring training three years ago as a top-100 prospect in baseball. When the regular season started, he was 20 and playing in double A. But he hit .222 with 12 home runs over two full seasons there and spent spring training with the minor leaguers last year.
Now 23, Cowart started hitting after a demotion in 2015 and even earned a big league call-up, during which he struggled.
First baseman/designated hitter C.J. Cron led the Angels in hitting last spring with a .413 average and .733 slugging percentage in 26 games but slumped once the season began. He ripped line drives on his first two at-bats Wednesday. “We need his offense, and I think he’s comfortable with that,” Scioscia said.