The injuries to Daniel Norris and Jordan Zimmermann had the potential to do serious damage to the Tigers’ playoff odds. Matt Boyd was thrust back into the rotation despite an ugly 8.24 ERA in June which led to his demotion to Triple-A Toledo. His strikeout rate had dwindled to 13.2 percent during the month, a sign that major league hitters had figured Boyd’s stuff out.
Since his recall, however, Boyd has been much better. He is even making a case to be one of the five members of a healthy Detroit rotation down the stretch. The Tigers currently have seven pitchers on the roster who are being used as a starter (not including shutdown reliever Shane Greene), and when Norris and Zimmermann return, the room will start to feel quite crowded. Anibal Sanchez is a safe bet to return to the bullpen, but Boyd has made a legitimate improvement that should keep him in the rotation for the rest of the year.
In three starts in the month of July, Boyd has a 27 percent strikeout rate and a meager 4.8 percent walk rate. The sample is very small, but very dominant; those strikeout-to-walk numbers are essentially in line with Chris Sale’s career norms. Boyd has also been able to combat his greatest demon: home run prevention. After allowing five homers in 24 2/3 major league innings in May and June, he has only allowed one in his last three starts. That’s a huge improvement (in a very small sample) that Boyd will need to maintain going forward.
Just how likely is it that Boyd has made a significant improvement? It’s hard to tell, but some of his peripherals indicate a positive trend. For one, Boyd is getting more ground balls so far in July. He’s elevated his ground ball rate from a mark of 40.6 percent in June to 45 percent in July. Furthermore, batters are popping up at a 28.6 percent rate this month. That is a pretty large chunk of batted balls that Boyd is allowing that pose little threat, though things could change as this sample of innings gets larger.
Interestingly enough, Boyd has made an adjustment in pitch selection that seems to be helping him out. Since the start of the year, he has begun to rely more on his off-speed stuff to major league hitters.
The curveball has not drawn many whiffs so far this year, but his changeup has been downright lethal — it is drawing swings and misses 28.9 percent of the time in July. Boyd’s changeup was praised when he first came onto the scene with the Tigers, but this is really the first we’ve heard of the pitch being a true weapon for him. Both pitches can also serve to keep hitters off balance, a key component in limiting quality and type of contact.
The improvement that Boyd has made seems to have a very real basis. Though he is in line for some regression after his scorching last few weeks, he is setting himself up to be a major league average starter, as his 101 FIP- indicates. At that rate, he is a much better option at the back end of the Detroit rotation than most teams have. Anibal Sanchez should never be allowed to start a game for the Tigers again, and Boyd is a much better bet to succeed than Mike Pelfrey as well.
The numbers bear this out: Boyd has been worth more fWAR than Pelfrey despite throwing 60 fewer innings, while his FIP of 4.32 is almost a full run lower than Pelfrey’s 5.19. Pelfrey would be a good fit in the bullpen as a swingman type — his performance out of the pen against the Cleveland Indians on Jun 24 is anecdotal evidence in favor of this move — and Boyd should be getting starts in Detroit’s rotation down the stretch to give the team the best chance to win.