I’ve already taken a look at Madison Bumgarner and Marcus Stroman as potential trade targets for the Yankees as we approach the deadline, so check those out if you’ve missed them. There are several more coming down the pipeline, and today I’m focusing on Matt Boyd of the Detroit Tigers.
As we’ll see, Boyd has had an up-and-down career but he’s really broken out in 2019. Of course, the Tigers are absolutely awful, winning only a third of their games, and Boyd has understandably been at the center of trade rumors. He’s been linked to the Yankees, too, so this isn’t speculation. Let’s dive deep into Boyd’s profile and see if he makes sense for the Yankees and what he may cost.
Boyd is a 6-foot-3, 28-year-old left-handed pitcher from Mercer Island, Washington. He was originally drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in the 13th Round of the 2012 Amateur Draft, though he did not sign with them. He was selected by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 6th Round of the 2013 Amateur Draft, signing with them. Notably, he was traded to Detroit, where he’s been ever since, along with Derek Norris and Jairo Labourt for David Price in 2015.
A few weeks before being traded, Boyd made his MLB debut on June 27, 2015, against Texas while a member of the Blue Jays. He was 24-years-old at the time, though never really a big-time prospect (he only ranked once on Baseball America’s organizational rankings, coming at 29th for Toronto before 2015). Overall, Boyd is 28-41 with a 4.84 ERA (4.56 FIP) in 567.0 IP during his career.
Prior to 2019, Boyd has never really had an above-average season as a Major League starter. His career high in innings pitched was 170.1 (2018), though he’s likely on track to meet or surpass that figure this season. If it isn’t yet obvious, 2019 has been a big leap for Boyd. Check this out:
Again, it’s really quite obvious that 2019 stands out as a true outlier in Boyd’s career. It’s already the most valuable season of his career by fWAR, and we’re only at the All-Star Break, for crying out loud. In 461 career innings prior to this year, Boyd was a below-average strikeout pitcher and walked opposing batters at a relatively average clip, trending to ever so slightly-above-average. Couple that with the fact that he surrendered 471 hits in those 461 innings, and it’s pretty clear to see why Boyd struggled.
However, this success didn’t necessarily come out of nowhere.Peel back the layers a bit, though, and you can start to see some signs in 2018 that pointed to future success. Last season was the first of his career in which Boyd surrendered fewer hits than innings pitched (146 hits in 170 IP, a career high), for instance. It was also the first year that his strikeout rate was league average (22.4%), jumping almost 3 percentage points higher than his previous career high (19.9%). These are good things that usually translate to good results.
That’s true for Boyd, too. Batters had a much more difficult time hitting Boyd last year, too. Check out the slash line against him, broken down by year:
- 2015: .313/.367/.612 (.979 OPS)
- 2016: .258/.316/.449 (.765 OPS)
- 2017: .291/.354/.472 (.826 OPS)
- 2018: .228/.294/.410 (.704 OPS)
That is quite a difference. Those are by far his lowest numbers in each category, and opposing batters were clearly stymied in a new way. So perhaps it’s not all that surprising that Boyd has found success this year…
…but while that’s true, it ignores the type of leap that Boyd made this year. Even with those underlying peripherals, Boyd’s jump has been extremely significant. He’s striking out a third of all batters he faces this year (league average is 22%) and walking only 4.5% (league average is 8.5%). Miss tons of bats and walk nobody? That’s a recipe for success. Closing off the loop from above, here’s how batters fare against him:
- 2019: .242/.283/.435 (.718 OPS)
Actually a bit worse than last year, because baseball is a weird sport, but it’s still noticeably different from his pre-2018 career. So, taking an overhead view for a moment, that’s now 1.5 seasons (270+ innings) of opposing batters rendering an OPS near .700 against Boyd. That’s really good! It sure does seem like Boyd has made a real leap. At least, the sample size is bigger than it appears at first glance.
However, it’s not all rosy for the Tigers’ lefty: he gives up a worrying amount of home runs. A lot of them. Check this out:
He’s always surrendered more home runs than you’d prefer, a trait you’d rather not see in a pitcher who may call Yankee Stadium home. More worryingly, there are discouraging trends even during his period of success. While his HR rate has risen with league standards this year, a deeper look reveals cause for concern. Check out this graph of his HR/FB%, i.e. the percentage of HR he surrenders per fly ball:
Yikes! That’s a huge jump from where he once was, going from above-average to below-average in this category. If there’s mitigating context, though, it’s this: he’s surrendering fewer fly balls overall, even as he surrenders a greater percentage of those as homers. Here it is:
Grounders are up, fly balls are down. If you want to be really optimistic about Boyd (and I don’t think that’s outrageous), then I think you could argue that his HR/FB ratio this year is an outlier to his career figure and should normalize itself. And, if you believe that he’s going to continue to induce more grounders, well, that’s a good combination, isn’t it?
When a pitcher makes a big leap in production as we’ve seen from Boyd, I always like to see an adjustment to the arsenal or some other tangible change. It helps explain why a pitcher might have made that leap and gives credence to the idea that it might be sustainable over the long-term. We see just that with Boyd. Check out his career usage rates, broken down by year:
As you can see, Boyd was a different pitcher from 2015-17. He relied heavily on his four-seam fastball and sinker, which accounted for about 50-60% of his usage during that period, while he mixed in a change, curve, and slider to round it out.
Last year, though, he started using his slider more. A lot more, actually. It jumped from a pitch that had maxed out at 16% usage (2015) and hovered at 10% in 2016 and 17 to a pitch he used more than 31% of the time in 2018. That’s a huge difference, and it’s happened for good reason: his slider is a good pitch. Check this out, which is the opposing batting average, slugging percentage, and whiff-per-swing rate in his career:
- 2015: .158 BAA, .237 SLG, 29.41% whiffs-per-swing rate
- 2016: .204 BAA, .333 SLG, 25.00% whiffs-per-swing rate
- 2017: .379 BAA, .500 SLG, 28.99% whiffs-per-swing rate
- 2018: .172 BAA, .285 SLG, 33.03% whiffs-per-swing rate
- 2019: .185 BAA, .308 SLG, 39.66% whiffs-per-swing rate
So, in other words, Boyd’s slider has been a great pitch for him in every year of his career with the notable exception of 2017. I’m pretty comfortable calling that an outlier, though, and even in that year he generated a ton of whiffs-per-swing. It is good to see Boyd use this pitch more. It’s a good one.
The other notable change for him is that he’s back to using his four-seamer heavily again and has all but abandoned his sinker. As he’s dropped that sinker, using it less than 4% of the time, he’s relying on his straight fastball more than at any point since his rookie season. (I do think it’s interesting that his GB% has increased as he’s dropped the sinker. This is a weird sport.)
His fastball is less effective than his slider, both historically and this season, though he’s generating a career-high 25% whiffs-per-swing on the pitch this season. (It’s also worth noting the pitch is high-spin, which could point to additional life on the pitch or help make this success sustainable.) All told, he’s using the slider and fastball more than 85% of the time in 2019 (!), which may or may not be sustainable in the long run, but we can say this for sure: it’s working.
Finally, Boyd doesn’t throw exceptionally hard, sitting around 92 with his four-seamer and about 80 mph on the slider. Here is his complete velocity data:
It’s worth noting the difference in slider velocity. It looks like Boyd may have made some adjustments to the pitch after 2017, when his slider was hammered. While there has been somewhat of a velocity drop overall after that season, the slider drop-off was precipitous. Huh. I wonder if that was intentional. Anyway, this is all very interesting to me. In summary, though, we’ve seen Boyd adjust his arsenal in a way that may explain his performance jump. That’s exciting for sure, and it does make him a more attractive trade candidate.
Boyd has never struggled with injuries. He’s never been on the DL/IL. That’s good! He comes with a good bill of health, which will probably raise his value. A healthy pitcher is a valuable pitcher, even as an innings-eater. Teams love durability, as they should.
However, that does mean that his limited innings pitched per season is because he’s mostly split time between MLB and MiLB, though, which is less than ideal. (Although, if you want to be positive, the lack of innings overall could be a sign that his arm is even “younger” than it should be.) Even still, though, it’s more than 260 innings over the last 1.5 seasons for Boyd with no injury concerns.
What’s He Going to Cost?
Let’s just get this out of the way now: Boyd is going to cost a lot. There are a two primary reasons why. Let’s go through them:
- He’s under team control for a while: first, and this is obvious, but Boyd is cheap and under team control for the foreseeable future. He only just became arbitration eligible (he’s earning $2.6 million this season as a Super 2), and the earliest he can be a free agent is after the 2023 season. He’s not a rental by any means, and he’ll be relatively cost-controlled throughout that period. This all matters quite a lot to teams these days, as we all know.
- Detroit doesn’t need to trade him right now: Of course, this also means that Detroit does not need to trade him, at least not right now. There’s no urgency whatsoever, as Boyd isn’t imminently leaving Detroit as a free agent and he’s not about to become more expensive. In fact, if the Tigers believe in his recent success and believe he can keep it up, there’s no reason to trade him at all. They will need good players when they’re trying to win. But even more to the point, assuming they do move him, they can afford wait for that package they really want. Teams may be skeptical of him right now, so maybe it makes more sense for Detroit to hold on to him through the season or for next year’s deadline.
Add all this up and what you get is a team in Detroit which has an asset teams want (controllable pitching) without the pressing urgency to move that asset. Pretty clear that they’re going to demand a whole lot. I would if I were them, wouldn’t you?
In fact, our most recent Boyd update underscores this point. According to Jon Heyman, “the Tigers’ asking price on lefty Matthew Boyd continues to be an impediment for interested teams” and that multiple GMs have said his price is “over-the-top.”
What does that mean, for the Yankees, exactly? Well, folks, it means that the Tigers have reportedly asked for Gleyber Torres in negotiations with the Yankees. Who can blame them? You can’t get what you don’t ask for, I suppose, but there’s a zero percent chance the Yanks would surrender Torres for Boyd. I’m confident in saying this, and I’m sure Detroit knows it. Nevertheless, if this is where negotiations are started, it’s going to take more than some young arm in the lower minors to get this done, so just forget that now.
Of course, all of this could just be posturing on Detroit’s end, but I highly doubt it. They might not get (or expect) Torres, but acquiring Boyd will require a hefty package. Probably the biggest package of all of the available targets, if we’re being honest with ourselves. It just doesn’t make sense for Detroit otherwise.
Does He Make Sense for the Yankees?
Yes and no. He makes sense from a “he is a pitcher who is good and the Yankees need one of those” perspective, for sure. I also think he makes sense from a “is he legit” perspective, because I do believe that there is enough here to think that he can be an above-average pitcher in the league for a few seasons. His new success is buttressed by a changed arsenal and method of attack, so it’s not like this is completely unfounded success. You can’t ignore it.
That said, I also think that there’s a lot to suggest this isn’t sustainable or that he’ll revert so being a league-average pitcher. To begin with, I am skeptical that Boyd will continue to have this much success while throwing only a fastball and a slider 90% of the time. That isn’t to say that he can’t continue to make adjustments, but I do think it’s a red flag. And secondly, the home runs really concern me. I don’t like bringing a guy like that into Yankee Stadium. It feels like a recipe for disaster, though who’s to say?
Add this up, and I’m not sure he’s going to be worth the cost. Detroit is understandably going to want a complete package for him, and if I were the Yankees, I’d need to see more–a lot more–from Boyd before giving that package.