What does a team do in the midst of a player’s career year? This is the question that drives so much of player valuation in this era of advanced analytics. It’s never been more possible for players to make the kind of changes that take them from replacement level to All-Stars, but it’s also never been more difficult to say whether a change is real or not. In short, Shane Spencers still exist, but how do you tell when you see one?
J.D. Martinez is a perfect example. He was one of the worst players on one of the worst teams in recent memroy, cut by a rebuilding Astros team after the 2013. A few months and a private hitting instructor later, he landed with the Tigers wielding a brand new swing and posted a 154 wRC+. The conventional mindset would say that this was a one-off, Martinez had never been this good before, he had no track record, it was a fluke. The conventional mindset was very, very wrong.
Patrick Corbin was a mostly meh left handed pitcher until he made a repertoire change and started throwing his slider more than just about anyone in baseball. He was a six win pitcher last year, and so many people were against signing him as a free agent. Corbin had never been this good before, he had no track record, it was a fluke. All Corbin’s done since then is post a 3.39/3.34/3.61 ERA/FIP/xFIP in Washington. Once again, the conventional mindset was wrong.
Like Martinez and Corbin in years past, Matthew Boyd is in the middle of a breakout season. He doesn’t have much of a track record, he’s never been this good before, and the previous highlight of his career was being the second-most-valued prospect in the 2015 trade that sent David Price to the Blue Jays.
In 2018, Boyd’s ERA/FIP/xFIP slash was just bad, 4.39/4.45/4.72. He was basically this year’s J.A. Happ, but eight years younger. Yet that was actually an improvement over his 2017, and the trend has continued in 2019. Boyd’s now posted a 3.95/3.47/3.35 line in his breakout season, and I want you to see if you can pick out the change he’s made:
In 2017, that dreadful season, Boyd began experimenting with a sinker, trying to induce soft contact that his defense could turn into outs. He threw it as often as his four-seam, and boy did that not work for him, as hitters tattooed his sinker to the tune of a 180 wRC+ (!!!!) against. Basically, if you saw Boyd’s sinker in 2017, you turned into Mike Trout at the plate. Of course, as you can see, he’s mostly given up on that pitch since.
That still left a problem of not having a reliable second offering, especially something against tough righties. That’s where Boyd’s slider comes in, and he has the sixth-highest slider rate in all of baseball. Fittingly, it’s a devastating one, the tenth-best slider in baseball by FanGraphs’ pitch values.
Boyd is nominally a two-pitch pitcher - I’d like to see him work his changeup in more because that’s a pretty solid pitch on its own - but he can make it work because of the command of his slider. Take a look at his most recent start, Saturday against the Royals:
We have three sliders, one on the outer third to a righty, one way inside to a RHB, and one on the inner third to a lefty. Boyd gets an easy flyout, swinging strikeout and strikeout looking. This kind of versatility and command over a single pitch, the ability to move it all around the zone against hitters of both hands and get positive results, is really, really promising.
Like most lefties, Boyd will bury the slider down and in, but you can see that this year he’s had no issue throwing it for strikes in the lower part of the zone either. This makes it a valuable weapon because it’s not just a two-strike pitch - being able to locate safely within the zone turns the slider into something a hitter can see in any count.
In a lot of ways, this slider reminds me of Masahiro Tanaka or Luis Severino, but from the left side. It’s OK that Boyd relies on it so much because it really is that great of a pitch, and his ability to differentiate the same nominal pitch type keeps him deceptive. That command is reflected in what I think is the most important single stat for starters, K-BB%:
I happen to think that the best way for a pitcher to be successful is to maximize strikeouts while minimizing walks, and by that metric, Boyd would already be the best pitcher on the New York Yankees.
Now, there is one real wart in Boyd’s game: the home run. His HR/9 is higher than Tanaka’s, for example, and we all know how much Tanaka struggles to keep the ball in the yard. There are a couple of mitigants for that, though, and chief among them is Boyd’s xFIP, where he ranks just ahead of Walker Buehler and one spot behind Jacob deGrom.
xFIP is essentially a regressed version of FIP that normalizes HR/FB rate, which can be extremely volatile year-to-year and even month-to-month for pitchers. What Boyd’s xFIP tells us is that we should expect some normalization in home runs allowed going forward, and that’s underlined by the fact that his average exit velocity allowed is better than league average. Add that to the rate at which he strikes batters out, and there’s a reason why his ERA stands out so much versus the rest of his metrics.
On paper, Boyd is exactly the kind of pitcher the Yankees should be targeting: high strikeouts, good command, and very clearly open to making changes in his game based on data presented. The Yankees are driven by analytics more than almost any other club in baseball, and to know ahead of time that the pitcher you’re acquiring will be able to make adjustments when given the right data means a lot in this brave new world of development.
The problem with targeting Boyd is cost. He’s not a free agent until 2023, meaning the Tigers have the option to just hold on to him this summer and try again multiple times until they can fetch a price they deem worthwhile. They’ve already leaked that they’d take Gleyber Torres for Boyd, which is ludicrous, but it shows how much they’re valuing their lefty ace.
You can’t blame Detroit for doing this; they have an extremely valuable asset under control for a long time, and as they figure out where they are in a long and nasty rebuild, they’re going to shoot for the moon in trade talks. We know the Yankees are already relatively cost-adverse, and are already speculating that the costs on the trade market are too high for their appetite. Even though Boyd is exactly the kind of guy the Yankees would want, this may just be a circumstance where a buyer and seller are wildly apart on value.
Matthew Boyd is in the middle of a career year. He’s made real, tangible, analytical tweaks to his game, and is the latest in a long line of players that include J.D. Martinez, Patrick Corbin, and many more. The conventional mindset can scoff that he doesn’t have a track record, and hasn’t pitched this well before, and they might very well be wrong, just like they were wrong about Martinez, Corbin, and others. Boyd’s an analytic success story, but the Tigers aren’t letting him go cheap, and at the end of the day there’s probably not a deal to be made with the Yankees.