In a fairly under-the-radar trade deadline move, the Oakland A’s may have stumbled upon the best prospect they’ve acquired in their rebuild. Joe Boyle’s elite stuff has so far been held back by poor command, but he made big strides after joining the A’s, which could make him the organization’s best shot at having a frontline starter going forward.
With the A’s 2023 season down the drain by the end of April and very few tradable players, Oakland’s best chance at getting some prospect value was Sam Moll, who’d thrown 91 1⁄3 innings with a 3.65 ERA and solid strikeout numbers since 2021. Nothing world-beating but a solid southpaw setup man with 4.5 years of team control left. The A’s somehow got the Cincinnati Reds to exchange a big young talent — with plenty of questions, of course — in Boyle for Moll’s services.
What were the expectations?
At the time of the trade, Boyle was right around the low-20s on most Reds and A’s farm rankings. It was surprising if any A’s fans had known of him prior to the trade. However, evaluators praised his talent — more specifically, the elite quality of his arsenal, highlighted by a 97 mph heater, an upper-80s slider, and a devastating cutter.
I have this as a pretty big win for the A’s, as Boyle has tremendous movement and velo numbers (and yes command issues) and Moll doesn’t. Even by results Moll is barely above league average. https://t.co/KuPrNvNObC— Eno Sarris (@enosarris) August 1, 2023
However, the Joe Boyle package wasn’t all pretty; he had red flags that ultimately made the Reds feel okay about giving him up for a reliever. Unlike Mason Miller, the A’s other young stuff-master, Boyle’s Achilles heel is his command rather than his health. In his first full minor league season in 2022, he threw 100 2⁄3 innings at High-A and Double-A with a 2.86 ERA and a whopping 153 strikeouts, but what made him expendable was his 84 walks. That mixed profile continued into 2023 as he struck out 122 and walked 75 in 84 innings for the Reds’ AA affiliate.
The A’s, however, felt his talent was worth a gamble, especially as they’ve had some success in recent years reigning in the command issues of young pitchers (e.g. Luis Medina, Royber Salinas). The expectation was that he’d continue to try to work his issues out as a starter with any improvement considered a win; if he struggled to make progress, his stuff could make him an elite bullpen prospect right away.
After a few starts at Double-A Midland after the trade, it started to look like the A’s might’ve found a steal. Not only did he put up his typically gaudy strikeout numbers, he also cut his walk rate in half. Forst quickly decided the 23-year-old was ready for a new challenge at Triple-A, a home park that’s been extremely unfriendly to pitchers. But Boyle somehow found success there, with the only issue being his walk rate climbing back up a bit, though it was still a marked improvement from his earlier numbers. That cameo prompted another quick promotion to the big league club that became his prospect coming-out party.
For Oakland, Boyle started his major league career with 15 scoreless innings over 3 starts, the best being his season finale when he carried a no-hitter into the 7th inning against an stripped down Los Angeles Angels team. Unfortunately, they got to him in the 7th, putting up a trio of runs and not letting him back out for the 8th. But the proclamation was already etched into stone: Joe Boyle is a problem.
What went right? What went wrong?
After getting just a couple of weeks’ worth of experience at Triple-A, Boyle already looked like a major-league ready pitcher through and through. Throughout his impressive end-of-season, the most encouraging aspect was probably how much better his command looked. In those 16 innings, he only walked five batters, which I’d guess was the least amount of walks he’d allowed over any three-start stretch in his career or close to it. Other than the final inning that washed away his no-hitter, Boyle really had no blemishes in his debut and gave the A’s performances they’d been desperately craving all season.
The 2024 A’s rotation is currently crowded with options, though not many proven ones. Beyond Paul Blackburn and JP Sears, everyone has big question marks, Boyle included. However, his head-turning, late-season excellence should give him a leg up on the competition. He has more talent than any A’s pitching prospect not named Mason Miller (though even that’s entering debatable territory) and, unless his command regresses, he’s likely best served getting reps against major league hitters. Now entering his age-24 season, I’ll be surprised if Boyle’s not in Oakland’s Opening Day rotation and towards the front of it by the end of the season.