Blue Jays Add Even More Rotation Depth in Trade for Steven Matz

Just two years ago, the Blue Jays used an MLB-record 21 different starters over the course of a season, most of whom were either years past their prime or pitching in the majors for the very first time. Unsurprisingly, that didn’t go so well. Toronto tried to fix that last winter by adding nearly enough pitchers to build a whole new rotation, then acquired three more starters at the August trade deadline. Even after all that movement, though, the Jays still finished 24th in the majors in pitching WAR.

The Blue Jays don’t have an arm quantity problem; they have an arm quality problem. But between a free-agent market lacking in top-end starting pitching and an apparent unwillingness to compete with the Padres and White Sox in making trades for aces, Toronto has been unable to address that need. Instead, it has directed its financial resources elsewhere, adding two of the best free-agent hitters of this winter’s class and the best reliever of the 2019 season. The Blue Jays have improved their offense and their bullpen. As for their starting pitchers, well, there sure are a lot of them.

You can add one more arm to that growing pile, as Toronto acquired left-hander Steven Matz from the Mets on Wednesday in exchange for three young right-handed pitchers: Sean Reid-Foley, Yennsy Diaz and Josh Winckowski. Matz, 29, is entering his final year of team control and is set to make just over $5 million in 2021. He became expendable in New York after the team acquired Joey Lucchesi — a younger, cheaper, and more controllable left-handed starter — from the Padres in the three-team deal that sent Joe Musgrove from Pittsburgh to San Diego. On the Mets, Matz was either the fifth or sixth starter in an elite rotation. In Toronto, he’ll be the fifth or sixth starter in a rotation that is merely okay.

There are few kind things to say about Matz’s 2020 season. He allowed 33 runs in 30.2 innings and lost his job in the rotation less than halfway through the year. As can often be the case, though, the situation doesn’t appear to be quite so dire once we get past the surface a bit. Yes, Matz’s 7.76 FIP is a disaster. But it isn’t because he couldn’t miss bats or lost control. In fact, the split between his strikeout and walk rates — 18.3% — was the best it’s ever been. Instead, it was home runs that crushed him: He gave up 14 of them, an average of 4.11 per nine innings he threw, with a HR/FB rate of 37.8%. Matz has always been burned by a worse-than-average rate of fly balls leaving the yard, but this was more than triple the major league average. If you look at metrics like SIERA and xFIP, which help adjust for small-sample home run burps like that, his numbers are in line with where they had been the last several seasons, when he was an average big league starter.

We don’t have to go through the Corbin Burnes debate of deciding whether a pitcher with an appalling ERA was actually fine if you just ignore all those dingers he gave up. Matz got pummeled, and it’s okay to say so. But he does have an extended track record of not getting pummeled, and while it’s troublesome to see opponents hitting him harder and in the air with greater frequency, it’s somewhat of a comfort not to see his actual stuff falling to pieces. His velocity was actually up a tick from previous years in 2020, and his spin rates across the board are up noticeably from where they were a couple years ago.

Then there’s the fact that hitters were actually making worse decisions against Matz in 2020 than before. He got the highest chase rate of his career by more than four points, as well as a career-best whiff rate. He seemed to have the right approach on the mound, too, recording his highest first-pitch strike rate since 2016 and the lowest overall zone rate of his career. In other words: He was attacking hitters early, then making them chase late. That’s usually a good way to get positive results.

The problem was the quality of strikes Matz threw when he did venture into the zone. Matz throws his sinker on 50% of his offerings, with another quarter of his pitches being changeups and 15% being curveballs. That makes him sound like a pitcher who attacks hitters at the knees and below, but you’d be wrong. Throughout his career, Matz has consistently thrown his sinker in the middle of the plate and high in the zone, the way you would expect a pitcher to throw a four-seam fastball with lots of carry. Year after year, the heat map for his sinker tends to look something like this:

The results are unkind. Our pitch values have placed Matz several runs below average with his sinker every year, and that seemed to catch up to him particularly hard in 2020, when his ground-ball rate fell nearly 15 points from the previous season. Diagnosing the problem with his other pitches, though, is less straightforward. His changeup, for example, seems like it should be a pretty good pitch: It had a whiff rate of 32.6% last year, and he has thrown it out of the strike zone more and more as years have gone on. It also added considerable movement over the last couple of years, now boasting 90th-percentile vertical movement and 88th-percentile horizontal movement. It even had the best ground-ball rate of any of his pitches in 2020. And yet the overall numbers are ugly: In 51 plate appearances ending on the changeup, opposing batters posted a .399 wOBA and .381 xwOBA and hit five home runs.

Ever since Matz’s 2016 season, when he finished with a career-best 2.5 WAR and a 3.40 ERA and 3.39 FIP in 132.1 innings, the Mets have been waiting for him to take the next step like so many of their other pitchers. With just a year remaining until he reaches free agency, though, they decided that wait was over. And while his departure leaves New York with one less starter, that’s a loss that can be weathered. Jacob deGrom, Carlos Carrasco and Marcus Stroman are a menacing 1-2-3 punch at the top of the rotation, and shedding Matz’s salary frees up a little space to accommodate an offer to free agent Trevor Bauer. Even if the Mets don’t add further, though, David Peterson was strong enough in his rookie year (3.44 ERA, 4.52 FIP in 49.2 IP) to inspire hope that he can be a capable back-end starter in the coming season, and Noah Syndergaard could return from Tommy John surgery sometime in the first half. Matz was excess, so New York traded him to the team that has coveted excess.

In return, the Mets receive three righties who could very well all be bound for relief roles long-term. Reid-Foley was a fixture on Toronto prospect lists for years after being drafted in the second round in 2014 as someone with a bright future in the rotation if he could ever figure out how to throw consistent strikes. To this point, though, he hasn’t, walking more than six batters per nine in the 71.2 innings he’s thrown in the majors since 2018. New York could be tempted to continue trying Reid-Foley as a starter, especially since he’s just 25 and has an option left, but his longterm future is likely in relief.

Diaz, 24, and Winckowski, 22, were each mentioned near the bottom of Eric Longenhagen’s recently published Blue Jays list, with Diaz ranked No. 33. Here’s his write-up, via Eric:

Diaz has projected as a single-inning middle reliever for quite some time, even though he had been developed as a starter throughout his entire minor league career. He held mid-90s velocity deep into games as a minor league starter and sat 94-98 during a horrendous single-game debut in 2019, seemingly unable to time his arm swing and find a consistent release point during a disastrous inning against the Orioles. That wasn’t sufficient justification to slide Diaz’s FV down on its own, but then he missed all of 2020 with a severe lat strain and only began pitching in games again for Estrellas Orientales in the Dominican Winter League where he again sat in the mid-90s (94-97 according to a source). The development of Diaz in the rotation improved his changeup enough that it became a sinking/tailing low-90s weapon and his best secondary pitch. He’s going to bully hitters with velocity and that changeup, and command consistency will dictate whether it’s in an up/down capacity or whether Diaz stays on the big league roster consistently.

Winckowski, meanwhile, was relegated to the “Depth Arms” section, having fallen below the 35+ Future Value distinction. He had a good 2019 season, holding a 2.32 ERA and 3.23 FIP in 73.2 innings in Low A, then a 3.19 ERA and 4.20 FIP in 53.2 innings in High A. Per Eric, he throws 97 mph with his fastball, boasting a slider and splitter as his secondary pitches. Like Diaz, Winckowski was developed as a starter throughout his minor league career but could fit better in single-inning relief role if a third pitch doesn’t stick.

Matz, meanwhile, will head to Toronto vying for a starting spot. As I touched on when the team signed Tyler Chatwood earlier this month, the Blue Jays already had a full rotation before the club’s recent moves, but Hyun Jin Ryu’s spot is probably the only one that should be considered safe. Robbie Ray, Tanner Roark, Nate Pearson and Ross Stripling could each be in danger of slipping into a bullpen role, while Chatwood, Trent Thornton and T.J. Zeuch hover on the fringes waiting for a chance to jump into the rotation. It’s a long list, and now another name has been added to it.

Matz won’t move the needle much on his own up north, but that hardly seems to be the point. As the 2021 season goes on and injuries and unforeseen collapses pile up, there will be teams across the league who come to regret not adding enough pitchers to their roster. No team, however, will regret adding too many.

Tony is a contributor for FanGraphs. He began writing for Red Reporter in 2016, and has also covered prep sports for the Times West Virginian and college sports for Ohio University's The Post. He can be found on Twitter at @_TonyWolfe_.

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David Kleinmember
1 year ago

Injuries and inconsistency sadly lead to a mediocre run here and unlike the other guys he never had a star turn here. The Blue Jays have a terrific offense but behind Ryu there’s not much upside and plenty of downside besides for Pearson.

David Kleinmember
1 year ago
Reply to  David Klein

Anyway Matz is a class act and won the Roberto Clemente award for his charity work I wish him the best and maybe he could be a decent back end guy that he was in 18-19, but I don’t see him making it back to his pre injury performance of 2016.

1 year ago
Reply to  David Klein

Yup. No team/fan connections but I wholeheartedly support him.

1 year ago
Reply to  David Klein

*Mets Nominee in 2018, Molina won. Marvin Miller nominee in 2017 as well. The point stands though that the man seems to strive to do a lot of charity work.