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Tigers vs. Indians Preview: Matt Boyd is ready for Round 2 against Carlos Carrasco

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Was Boyd’s win over Carrasco in April a fluke? It might be. It might not.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Chicago White Sox Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

On April 16, the Detroit Tigers defeated the Cleveland Indians, 4-1. Matt Boyd was the winning pitcher, clinching his second W of the season with a solid-if-unspectacular six inning performance. Carlos Carrasco shouldered the loss for the Indians after allowing a pair of runs in 6 23 frames. It was a weird game.

While watching that game, I was reminded of another odd Tigers win from 2016. On June 4, the Tigers beat the Chicago White Sox by a 7-4 score. Mike Pelfrey notched the win over then-White Sox ace Chris Sale. It might not have been the most statistically unlikely of the 2016 season, but I imagine it was close.

While the Boyd-Carrasco matchup isn’t nearly as one-sided as Pelfrey-Sale, one might still consider Boyd’s April win a fluke. He allowed seven hits to Carrasco’s four, and was not quite as efficient as the Indians’ hard-throwing righty. Adding to the oddities of that game were Carrasco’s five walks, none of which crossed home plate.

If I were to gamble on it, I would bet that this doesn’t repeat itself. Carrasco has only walked two hitters in his other four starts. The Tigers were not much of a threat to score outside of those five walks. Meanwhile, the Indians managed plenty of hard contact against Boyd, and actually stranded more runners on base (6) than the Tigers (5).

I’m certainly open to being wrong, though.

Cleveland Indians (14-12) at Detroit Tigers (14-12)

Time/Place: 7:10 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation blog: Let’s Go Tribe
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV (Free Game of the Day), Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Carlos Carrasco (2-2, 2.04 ERA) vs. LHP Matt Boyd (2-1, 3.86 ERA)

Game 27 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Carrasco 35.1 26.6 5.5 3.59 0.6
Boyd 25.2 17.1 11.7 4.56 0.2

A quick glance at Carlos Carrasco’s 2016 numbers suggests that he was every bit the psuedo-ace the Indians unlocked for the 2014 and 2015 seasons. The 3.32 ERA, 25 percent strikeout rate, and 2.5 fWAR were numbers that many teams would love from their No. 2 or 3 starter.

There were a few slight concerns, though. FanGraphs’ Chad Young pointed them out on Carrasco’s player page.

When he pitched, some numbers moved the wrong way. He saw a decrease in velocity and fewer swinging strikes. Batters swung less often and made more contact. They also made harder contact and hit more fly balls, leading to a spike in home runs allowed. His K%-BB% was the lowest it has been in his three-year run of excellence. The whole package was still good for a 3.32 ERA and matching 3.32 xFIP, with the big question being whether the spike in home run-to-fly ball ratio was a fluke or a pattern. If the former, that 3.32 looks legit. If the latter, his 3.72 FIP might be more of a concern. After his brilliant 2015, last season was something of a letdown.

Those trends have continued in 2017. Carrasco’s strikeout rate has ticked upward somewhat, but his whiff rate is a hair worse thus far than what he managed in 2016. Opponents are also making more contact on pitches within the strike zone. His 90.7 percent zone contact rate (Z-contact%) is reminiscent of the early years of his career, when he struggled to keep a job in the Indians’ rotation. While a lot of that contact has been soft — he has allowed a hard contact rate of just 20.9 percent so far — his home run issues have persisted as well, with five dingers allowed in his first five outings.

Matt Boyd’s underlying numbers are also a bit concerning — more on those in a moment — but one reason why he’s currently outperforming his 4.57 FIP is a change in his pitch usage. Prior to the season, Brandon identified Boyd’s curveball as a potential weakness in an otherwise solid arsenal. FanGraphs’ Jeff Sullivan did the same in a roundabout way, and pointed out Boyd’s increased slider velocity as a way he could generate more strikeouts.

Those whiffs aren’t here yet, but Boyd’s approach is trending in the right direction.

He hasn’t scrapped the curveball yet, but Boyd has started to throw his “cutter” more often in his last three starts. While the graph above looks funky because of a Brooks classification error, he threw his cutter/slider more often in his last start than at any other point this season. Given how much he threw his fastball and changeup against Cleveland earlier this year (the middle point on the above graph) expect a few more benders on Wednesday.

Key matchup: Matt Boyd vs. the strike zone

As mentioned, Boyd’s peripheral numbers aren’t great. He has lowered his home run rate in his first five starts of 2017, but his strikeout rate has also taken a slight dip. Worst of all, however, is probably Boyd’s 11.7 percent walk rate. He has issued at least two walks in each of his five outings thus far, and is relying on a relatively unsustainable 79.9 percent strand rate to keep those extra runners from scoring. The underlying numbers aren’t bad — he is actually hitting the strike zone a bit more often than last year — but opponents aren’t chasing pitches outside of the strike zone quite as often as last season.

Outlook

For as solid as the Tigers have looked in their four wins against the Indians this season, their current pace is rather unsustainable. Yes, no team manages an .800 win percentage against another team over a large sample of games, but the Tigers seem to be getting a bit lucky in some of these matchups. The Tribe have managed 29 hits in their four losses to the Tigers this year, just six fewer than Detroit. If you add in walks, that margin jumps to seven more baserunners in four games. Meanwhile, the Indians offense is just 4-for-30 with runners in scoring position in those four games, a paltry .133 batting average. Water finds its level eventually, and the Indians offense is too talented to continue squandering so many scoring opportunities.

I’m not sure that regression starts immediately, though.

Prediction

Boyd keeps on truckin’ and the Tigers win their fourth in a row.