The Blue Jays are targeting a top-of-rotation starter this off-season, whether by free agent signing or by trade. Should Matt Boyd be on the target list?
The Blue Jays are looking to upgrade their starting rotation for 2020, ideally with a combination of solid, innings-eating veterans and with at least one solid top-of-rotation starter. Ideally that pitcher should provide substantial quality innings, and be under team control long enough to bridge to the “third wave” of young pitchers in the Jays’ minor league system.
There are at least four free agent pitchers who could fit this need: Gerrit Cole, Steven Strasberg, Zack Wheeler and Hyun-Jin Ryu. But there will be substantial competition for their services, and it is far from guaranteed that they would come to a rebuilding Toronto team, even if the Jays were to overpay.
As there do not appear to be any Ohtani-type ace level international free agents, that leaves the trade market as the most likely option. There are several pitchers who might be available and might fit the bill: David Price of Boston, Corey Kluber of Cleveland, and Jon Gray or German Marquez of Colorado, for example.
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And Matt Boyd of Detroit. But does he belong on this list?
The case for Boyd
Boyd is young (he will play 2020 at age 29), reportedly available, and under team control for the next three years through arbitration. He should be relatively cheap (perhaps $30 million total for those three years). Oh, and he is good.
Or is he?
There are many metrics that can be used to measure a pitcher’s ability. Perhaps the most obvious one is earned run average. By this measure, Boyd’s career 4.92 (and 2019 4.56) are not at top-of-rotation level. But ERA has limitations as an evaluation metric. Most notably, it does not adjust for team defense. A strong defensive team will make a pitcher look good, and a weak team can do the opposite. Detroit’s team defense rating of -29 was the 4th worst in baseball in 2019.
There are several advanced stats which are designed to evaluate a pitcher’s performance independently of his team’s defense. Fielding-independent pitching (FIP), expected fielding-independent pitching (xFIP) and skill-interactive earned run average (SIERA) are three of these, with SIERA being the most sophisticated. (As an aside, some people think SIERA was designed to be a projection tool. This is not the case. SIERA is technically a backward-looking ERA estimator and not a forward-looking projection system). Of the four metrics (including ERA), SIERA has been found to have the highest predictive power.
The most detailed and sophisticated tool is Statcast’s expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA). Statcast produces this figure for a pitcher by taking every batted ball event given up by that pitcher over the entire year and calculating the expected value of each event (based on factors such as exit velocity, direction and launch angle). They then aggregate all of those BBEs to give an xwOBA for the year. This calculation arguably gives the “truest” measure of the pitcher’s own performance, by removing team defense and luck.
So what do SIERA and xwOBA say about Boyd’s 2019? Well, his 3.61 SIERA was 11th best among qualified pitchers and his .297 xwOBA was 23rd (min 600 PAs). Not ace level, granted, but both pretty d*rn good.
But 2019 was a fluke!
Some might argue that the breakthrough that Boyd experienced in 2019 was a one-time fluke which will not be repeated. They will point out that his stats in 2015-18 were far more pedestrian, which is partially true.
But breakthroughs do happen, particularly when a pitcher finds a new grip or approach. Consider Patrick Corbin, who went from a 4.03 ERA / 4.12 SIERA in 2017 to 3.15 / 2.91 in 2018, and who continues to play well. In Boyd’s case:
"The work Boyd put into his fitness and his pitching last offseason paid big dividends. His four-seam fastball, which had dropped to an average velocity of 90.5 mph in 2018 according to Statcast, jumped to 92.1 mph this season while gaining 102 rpm on spin rate, making it a legitimate swing-and-miss pitch for him. He paired it with a sharp slider to create a devastating combination for hitters to handle."
And Boyd’s 2019 did not exactly come out of nowhere. In 2018, his xwOBA was .289 (even better than 2019), which was 21st best in baseball (min 600 PAs). So even though his 2018 ERA of 4.39 was perfectly cromulent, he was already showing signs of a potential breakout.
But he had a terrible second half of 2019!
Did he? By ERA, yes. But (as discussed above) ERA has its limitations. Boyd’s SIERA by month was 3.45 in March/April, 3.54 in May, 3.19 in June, 2.90 in July, 4.33 in August, and 4.86 in September. So for 132 of his 185 innings, he was good bordering on excellent. Which begs the question: why the decline in August and September?
"Boyd admits that it was difficult at times to fully separate his personal and professional lives, despite his mantra of “be present”, a vow he takes everyday to undertake his baseball duties without worrying about the world off the field. Much of this was exacerbated by the decision to have his wife Ashley give birth in Seattle, where the family has a much more robust support structure than Detroit … and [he] was further disrupted when he had to leave the team to attend his grandfather’s funeral"
Sadly, Statcast does not provide xwOBA by month, so it is not possible to analyze how that metric changed over the last two months.
So in summary: the slow finish to the season is a negative, but there are reasons to not give it excessive weight.
But he led the AL in HR allowed!
True. Though his HR/9 was actually 10th in MLB (starters, 100 IP). But strikeout pitchers frequently give up more home runs than average (who was second in HRs allowed in the AL? Justin Verlander). Plus, home runs are not – in and of themselves – a true measure of pitching ability. And having HRs as your primary weakness in 2019 is not a bad thing, if the rumours about MLB adopting a less-juiced ball in the 2019 playoffs and in 2020 are true.
The bottom line
Matt Boyd is not a Cole or Scherzer-level ace, and he is unlikely to ever become one. And he does not have an extended history of elite-level performance, which makes him a risk. But by SIERA and xwOBA, his 2019 season (including his slow finish) was at a top-25-starter level, and not many of the other trade candidates can say that. It is also possible that his poor ERA could work to the Jays’ advantage, in that the Tigers will reduce their asking price to something less extortionate. Boyd is a gamble, granted. But a gamble worth taking.