There has been considerable talk about the merits (and costs) of the Blue Jays extending Ray or Semien beyond this season. But might there be a third extension candidate?
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Robbie Ray is having an exceptional year. He is a free agent at the end of 2021, and could very well receive a contract in the Zach Wheeler 5 years / $118 million ballpark. Marcus Semien is also dominating, with a projected 6 fWAR, an all-star appearance, and likely MVP votes. Both of these players would be excellent candidates for an extension (or for signing as free agents) but neither would come cheaply, and for both Toronto would have substantial competition on the free agent market.
Which brings me to Steven Matz.
Matz is also a free agent at the end of the 2021 season. His situation is similar to Ray’s, though not at the same level. Matz’ first two years (2015 and 2016) were strong, with a combined 3.16 ERA and 3.0 fWAR over 28 starts. He then regressed, with a SIERA in the 4.somethings from 2017-2020 before joining the Jays in a trade with the Mets this January. So far in 2021, his performance has been very ordinary, with a 4.30 ERA over 19 starts.
Matz’ 4.30 ERA is not that exciting – it is 64th of the 89 pitchers who have thrown 90+ innings so far this year. An r-scale #3 starter. But his 3.73 xFIP is #34 – just behind Trevor Bauer and ahead of Sandy Alacantra. And Matz’ 3.90 SIERA is 39th in that group, just ahead of Germán Márquez. As a result, Matz has 1.5 fWAR year to date – which projects to 2.5 fWAR over 32 starts. Not an ace – but not just rotation filler either.
Now consider advanced batted ball stats. There are three primary Statcast stats used to evaluate the quality of contact a pitcher allows from the batters he faces. The first is the average exit velocity of the balls hit. The second is the hard hit percentage – that is, the percentage of the balls hit that leave the bat at 95 mph or greater. And the final stat is barrels percentage, which is the percentage of batted balls that were hit squarely off the most powerful part of the bat. There is generally a high correlation between these stats and performance.
So how to the Jays starters rank on these three metrics (with thanks to Statcast)?
Steven’s 87.4 mph average exit velo and 5.3% Brls/PA% are the best among Jays starters. His hard hit percentage is second to José Berríos … by a whopping .1 of a percent. Another way to look at the “Matz Statz” © – of the 110 starting pitchers who have pitched a qualified number of innings this year, only 12 are as good or better than Matz in all three of these statistical categories.
And one final thought. Of Matz’ 19 starts in 2021, two in particular stand out – his 2.2 inning start (the shortest of his 2021 season), 4 ER start against Seattle on June 30 and his 4 inning, 3 ER start against Baltimore on July 6. Not great. But those starts came after Matz tested positive for COVID-19 on June 13, and did not pitch due to covid protocols from June 13-19. Suppose (and yes, I *am* cherry-picking!) we assume that Steven was still recovering and rusty for those two starts, and give him a mulligan, looking only at his results for the other 17 games. In just under 90 innings, he would have a 3.91 ERA. And of those 17 games, three were against Boston, two against Houston and one against Tampa – all three of which teams are among the top-6 offenses in baseball in 2021. Which makes a 3.91 ERA look pretty good.
The bottom line
Matz is not – and will likely never be – a staff ace. But he has the potential to be a very valuable member of a starting rotation, both in the regular season and as a #3 or #4 starter in the playoffs. And his cost might be far less than a free agent Ray or an extended Berrios. Think Jake Odorizzi‘s 3 years and $25 million-ish (perhaps $30m with incentives). Or Taijuan Walker‘s 3/$23m. Signing Steve to a contract in that ballpark should not preclude a Ray re-signing, or the Jays pursuing a bigger-name free agent (imagine seeing Thor in powder blue!). But it would allow the Jays to enter the 2021-22 offseason with a projected 2022 starting rotation of Ryu – Berrios – Manoah – Matz – Stripling, which would allow them to approach the free agent and trade markets from a position of relative strength.
*Featured Image Courtesy Of DaveMe Images. Prints Available For Purchase.
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A Jays fan since pre-Series, Jim’s biggest baseball regret is that he did not play hooky with his buddies on 7 Apr 77. But hearing “Fanfare For The Common Man” played from a rooftop on 24 Oct 92 helped him atone.