After Matz trade, unorthodox pitching staff has Toronto poised for success
The Buffalo Toronto Blue Jays struck another deal on January 27th, adding left-handed pitcher Steven Matz from the New York Mets in exchange for young right-handed pitchers Sean Reid-Foley, Yennsy Diaz and Josh Winckowski:
For the Mets, the trade was obvious. Matz struggled mightily in 2020, posting a 9.68 ERA (7.76 FIP) and allowing 14 home runs in his 30.2 innings. He’s owed $5.2M in his last year of arbitration, and that’s money Cohen and company would prefer to direct elsewhere. Plus, they snagged a few much-needed depth arms for their troubles.
What about the Blue Jays? Clearly, after adding George Springer, Marcus Semien and Kirby Yates through free agency, their next focus would be the rotation. But Matz is something of a curious fit, especially after they already signed a pair of high-variance free agent arms in Tyler Chatwood and Robbie Ray.
Their rotation certainly looks top-heavy. Hyun Jin Ryu, coming off an excellent 2020 season and still owed $60M over the next three years, is the clear staff ace. Barring further injury, top prospect Nate Pearson should slot right behind him.
After those two, the Blue Jays have a fascinating mix of track record, risk and upside. But perhaps most importantly, almost every arm on the roster is more than capable of pitching multiple innings.
In fact, of the 21 pitchers on the 40-man roster, a whopping 15 have started at least five games combined between the majors and minors in 2019 and 2020. Additionally, Shun Yamaguchi started four games for NPB’s Yomiuri Giants in 2019, while Jordan Romano and Elvis Luciano each were used as starters in the minors in 2018.
That leaves only three pure relievers on the entire 40-man roster – Yates, Rafael Dolis and Ty Tice. Plus, each of their non-veteran depth arms has options remaining. The Blue Jays have an insane level of flexibility with their pitching staff, even if the back end of their rotation isn’t entirely ironed out.
And that back end might not even be as suspect as it looks on paper. Given that Toronto just went out of its way to acquire both, it’s safe to assume Matz and Ray have an inside track to rotation spots. Chatwood will likely be used as a swingman, though he and midseason trade acquisition Ross Stripling could claim starting roles with strong spring performances. Tanner Roark will also be given another chance to justify the two-year, $24M contract the team handed him last spring.
Those five were flat-out awful in 2020, combining for a 6.82 ERA. But there’s legitimate reason to believe in rebounds from each of them.
This very clearly isn’t just five washed-up veterans deep into their decline phases. At 34, Roark’s best days are likely behind him, but Stripling and Chatwood are 31, while Ray and Matz are still just 29. They’ve passed their peaks, but should still have productive days ahead of them.
Further, each of the five was useful as recently as 2019:
All were roughly two-win pitchers, except for Chatwood, who made only five starts but was an above average long reliever. FanGraphs Depth Charts projects the bunch for 6.7 fWAR total in 2021, a massive turnaround from their 2020 sum of -1.5. But Toronto isn’t just blindly hoping for a return to form from these veterans. Each shows some level of additional promise as well.
Ray has struggled with command his entire career, and he made a mechanical change heading into 2020 to try and address the issue. That change resulted in the worst season of his career, walking a batter per inning before the Diamondbacks traded him to Toronto in exchange for minor league reliever Travis Bergen. His trade value had plummeted from $23.4M in the spring to $9.0M at the start of the shortened season to just $2.3M at the deadline.
But in Toronto, Ray started to turn a corner. As Ben Clemens of FanGraphs pointed out, he appeared to have reverted to his old mechanics, and success followed. His BB/9 dipped to 6.10 – still very high, but much more reasonable – to go with a 4.79 ERA. More importantly, his first pitch strike rate jumped to 61.9%, which would have been a career high. His total strike rate of 48.2% was also a massive improvement.
According to Statcast, in 2020 Ray allowed a .500 xwOBA on pitches that missed out of the zone arm side (in an admittedly small sample). But after the move to Toronto, his fastball missed arm side significantly less. The first chart shows his fastball location with the Diamondbacks in 2020; the second, his heat map after the trade:
Ray added a tick in 2020, his fastball jumping from 92.4 mph to 93.7. His fastball spin rate is also in the 80th percentile. There’s always been plenty to like about Ray’s stuff, and even with below average control, he can be a valuable rotation arm.
Many saw his one-year, $8M contract with the Blue Jays as an overpay, but by our model, it was a slight underpay, hence his current $0.9M surplus. Our model trusts his track record, and given his apparent mechanical readjustments, I do too.
Matz enjoyed a similar velocity spike, his fastball averaging a career-high 94.5 mph. At first glance, his peripherals were strong too, his 18.3 K-BB% a career-high. But he got absolutely crushed, his 91.5 mph average exit velocity against ranking fifth worst among pitchers with at least 30 innings pitched.
His sinker was largely to blame. Batters posted a .440 wOBA (.385 xwOBA) against the pitch, which generated only 28.3% ground balls. It wasn’t necessarily his location, either – Matz has always thrown his sinker up in the zone.
In August, Matz explained to Tim Britton of The Athletic that the movement on his two-seam and four-seam are inverted. In 2020, he focused more on his two-seam and, as a result, cut down on his slider usage, the pitch pairing better with his four-seam. While pitch tracking systems didn’t detect the change (or if they did, they didn’t classify it), it’s clear that a switch back is in order. Whichever fastball Matz used in 2020, it clearly didn’t work, and the rest of his pitches suffered as a result.
No matter what, Matz is likely due for natural positive regression in 2021. His BABIP and HR/FB% were sky high, while his strand rate was just 58.6%. He also battled a shoulder injury late in the season, and there’s a chance it was bothering him all year. But if the Blue Jays can fix his fastball, they might have a solid mid-rotation arm on their hands.
Stripling was another 2020 deadline acquisition from Toronto. Last offseason, rumors had him headed to the Los Angeles Angels along with Joc Pederson, but that trade fell through. He responded with the worst season of his career, getting shelled in seven Dodgers starts before being traded to the Blue Jays for a pair of PTBNLs, one of which ended up being RHP Kendall Williams ($2.6M).
In Toronto, Stripling’s ERA continued to rise, though his peripherals were much stronger. His ground ball rate spiked and his home run rate crashed. It would be easy to dismiss his rough 2020 as just poor strand rate and HR/FB rate luck and call it a day.
But there was something else at play. Stripling’s strikeout rate dropped from over 25% in 2018-19 to just 18.2% in 2020, while his walk rate rose to a career-high 8.2%. Like Matz, his fastball velocity increased, but also like Matz, it got shelled. Strangely, Stripling’s usage of that ineffective fastball increased, replacing his effective curveball.
Essentially, Stripling’s pitch mix was a mess. His first pitch strike rate dropped 5%, putting him behind in the count at the highest rate of his career. When he was behind in the count, he threw his subpar fastball almost half of the time, while his curveball usage dropped significantly. He even used his curveball less when he was ahead and/or had two strikes:
|Count||FB 2019||FB 2020||CB 2019||CB 2020|
It’s hard to tell exactly what this means. Stripling’s curveball has been slowly gaining horizontal break since 2018, so perhaps he’s just losing his feel for the pitch. Regardless, it seems like an adjustment to Stripling’s pitch mix and sequencing could be all he needs to return to pre-2020 levels of success.
For Chatwood, it’ll all be about health. His tenure with the Cubs was frustrating to say the least, and his final year there was no different. After an effective 2019 as a swingman, Chicago moved him back into the rotation for 2020.
He made five starts before his season was cut short by a forearm injury. His first two were excellent, the next two were disastrous, and his fifth was going well until his arm started barking and he was removed. Chatwood finished the season with a 5.30 ERA, 3.35 FIP and .400 BABIP, as well as elite spin rates on his fastball and curveball.
His velocity dropped a tick, but that’s to be expected, both with his move from the bullpen to the rotation and his forearm injury. Notably, he flipped his cutter and four-seam usage, with positive results. We’ll see how the Blue Jays deploy him and if he moves forward with this adjusted pitch mix.
Roark easily has the least upside of the bunch, but he entered 2020 as a reliable two-win pitcher. Unfortunately, he couldn’t keep it going. His walks and home runs ballooned while he lost a mile and a half on his fastball.
This might be the end of the road for Roark. His curveball is still an effective pitch, but his fastball and sinker both get shelled and his control went out the window. He’ll need either a significant velocity spike or notably improved command to rebound and be an effective starter.
Luckily for the Blue Jays, with the staff they’ve constructed, they might not need Roark to bounce back all the way. The same goes for the other veterans. Even if a few fall flat, Toronto already has a leg up on teams like the Yankees and Red Sox because of their insane depth.
As scheduled, the 2021 season is going to feel like an eternity. If all goes according to plan, we’ll have a full spring training followed by a full 162-game season. After 2020’s 60-game sprint, its unknown what impact the dramatic increase will have on pitching staffs.
The Yankees don’t seem to care, placing a lot of faith on additions Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon and returnees Luis Severino and Domingo German. Those four combined to throw one inning in 2020. Similarly, the Red Sox are counting on returns from Chris Sale and Eduardo Rodriguez, as well as contributions from the oft-injured Nate Eovaldi and Garrett Richards.
But how many innings can those teams realistically expect from each of those players? How many innings can the Yankees even expect from a workhorse like Gerrit Cole? The jump from 60 games to 162 is unprecedented, and teams might see their starting pitching “depth” disappear overnight.
But the Blue Jays are, effectively, 18 starters deep. They could still add another in free agency. And that’s not even counting top prospects Alex Manaoh and Simeon Woods Richardson, who could quickly find themselves in the mix.
On the surface, it looks like the Blue Jays are collecting damaged goods. A closer look reveals a few potential gems. Either way, their depth has them more than prepared to weather the upcoming storm.