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Potential Offseason Target: Steven Matz

The Red Sox have reportedly shown interest.

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Toronto Blue Jays v Minnesota Twins Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

We do these potential offseason target posts every winter, because of course we do. This is the main topic of conversation for every baseball fan this time of year, so it would only make sense it would be among ours as well. Some of these targets are akin to the Mark Canha post we put up yesterday, talking about a player we, the writer, personally like and someone we believe can help the Red Sox. And then there are some targets like the one we’re doing today with Steven Matz, in whom the team has reportedly had interest. Whereas the Canha one is mostly us trying to explain why we like this player, the goal for a post like this is to wonder whether or not Boston’s interest is warranted.

On the most basic level, of course it makes sense for the Red Sox to have at least some interest in Matz as he is a viable major-league starter and they are in need of at least a couple viable major-league starters. They should be in contact with pretty much every starter on the open market right now to see what prices are around the free agent landscape. And with Eduardo Rodriguez signing with the Tigers on Monday, options are already thinning (albeit only a little at this point).

But whether Matz is a logical target or someone to actually be excited about is a different question and one I want to tackle today. It makes sense to start with some background, and Matz does have some prospect pedigree. A former second round pick, the southpaw was twice on top-100 lists, coming in as a consensus top-15 prospect in all of baseball prior. to the 2016 season. He hasn’t reached those heights and has struggled to throw the number of innings to live up to that billing, but he has been a solid major-league starter since he made his debut in 2015, at least when he’s been able to take the mound.

After spending his entire career prior to 2021 with the Mets, he was sent to the Blue Jays in a trade last winter, and he did indeed spend his 2021 with Toronto. Again, his innings were a bit limited as he struggles to get deep into games, but over 150 23 innings he pitched to a very solid 3.82 ERA and a nearly identical 3.79 FIP. Those numbers won’t blow anyone away, but they are solidly above-average by park-adjusted metrics (85 ERA-, 89 FIP-).

And that’s really who he has been for most of his recent career. Throwing away the shortened 2020 season in which Matz threw only 30 23 innings (and, admittedly, pitching very poorly in that small sample) he’s been almost exactly league-average. His ERA- in that span is 106, which is slightly worse than league-average. His strikeout rate (23 percent) and walk rate (seven percent) are each also right around average. There’s really not a whole lot that stands out, but he has been consistently fine, which lacks excitement but has utility in this league.

That being said, there are some specific fit issues I would have with the Red Sox. For one thing, he is a sinker pitcher, which presents two questions. One is that Boston just doesn’t play good defense on the infield, and it doesn’t look like they’re going to be able to clean that up to any significant degree for 2022. In front of a good infield defense someone who leans on a sinker more than half the time like Matz does year in and year out can succeed. But there’s a much greater chance that can go sideways playing in front of this defense.

On top of that, his sinker just hasn’t really been a great pitch. Even leaning so heavily on a pitch you don’t see a ton of in this era of baseball, his 46 percent ground ball rate over the last four years is only four percentage points higher than league-average. And the overall success just hasn’t been there over the last two seasons in particular. In 2021, it wasn’t a terrible pitch, but the .340 wOBA he allowed was middling and he only induced whiffs at a rate of 18 percent, the lowest of any of his four offerings. So for the Red Sox specifically, they may look to see if he can switch to a four-seam that plays more up in the zone, hoping for more whiffs and less pressure on their infield defense.

But whatever the case may be with their plans for the southpaw, their interest is underwhelming, but not necessarily disappointing. If Matz were someone they were targeting to be their top starting pitcher to come in this winter, then yes that’s horribly disappointing. But I don’t suspect that’s how they view Matz. Instead, he seems like a good secondary signing. If paired with one of the top five or 10 pitchers available this year via either free agency or trade, then a potential rotation of Nathan Eovaldi, Chris Sale, free agent signing, Steven Matz, and Nick Pivetta with good internal depth behind would be fine.

So even if Matz isn’t a perfect fit, he’s got a track record as a solid back-end starter, and you can never have enough of that. He just can’t be the top target for the rotation, and we don’t expect he will be.