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Tigers’ Matt Boyd walked a tightrope in 2018

Boyd became an extreme fly ball pitcher this year and made it work. At least in Comerica Park.

Detroit Tigers v Kansas City Royals Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Matt Boyd remained a bit of an enigma in 2018. Despite a serious loss of velocity that persisted into the summer months, Boyd pitched well early on before struggling in June and never really getting on a roll again. For the third straight year, he alternated a few months of dominance with long patches of mediocrity.

Overall, Boyd threw 170 13 innings in 2018, putting up a 4.39 ERA, with a 4.45 FIP. That’s excellent value for a player making slightly more than the league minimum. For the second consecutive year, FanGraphs WAR (fWAR) valued him as a league average pitcher. He continues to be a veritable workhorse by today’s standards, topping 160 innings, minor leagues included, for the fourth straight year.

There was also a new wrinkle in his game in the form of a drastically overhauled slider. In 2017, former Tigers’ pitching coach Rich Dubee had Boyd, as well as several other Tigers pitchers, trying to throw a harder, late breaking slider. It didn’t work out so well. This spring, pitching coach Chris Bosio reversed course on that project, and Boyd was way ahead of him in offseason training with Driveline Baseball. He took about six miles per hour off the pitch, altered his grip, and threw a sweeping, 80-81 mph slider that proved the best breaking ball he’s had in his entire career.

With his shiny new slider, Boyd went on to post his best ever strikeout rate. He trimmed his walk rate compared to the year prior as well. His sinker, curveball, and changeup took a backseat, as roughly 70 percent of his pitch mix was either the fourseam fastball or the slider.

While his velocity was down substantially early in the season, the heat slowly returned until he was throwing as hard as ever by August. Boyd continued to show slight variations in timing and arm angle with his fastball, using deception to help it play up to hitters. As a result he held opponents to a pretty meager .298 wOBA against the fourseamer.

However, there is still one bright red flag in his numbers.

One big stat: Home ERA 2.63/Road ERA 5.89

As it turns out, despite the improved strikeout-to-walk numbers for Matt Boyd, he was living dangerously. His homeruns per nine innings (HR/9), jumped from 1.20 in 2017, which is basically league average, to 1.43 in 2018. Not a dramatic change, but one that expresses itself in the fact that Boyd struggled mightily outside the spacious confines of Comerica Park. He pitched just 13 more innings on the road, but he allowed 19 home runs, as compared to just eight in his home ballpark.

There’s a good reason for this. Boyd turned into an extreme flyball pitcher in 2018. He was second to only Justin Verlander in flyball percentage among qualified starters this season, turning in a 49.9 percent rate, to Verlander’s 51.4 percent mark. Boyd has never been a groundball pitcher, but these results were extreme even for him. He leaned into those fly ball tendencies and made it work, but that’s a profile that would scare teams in more home run friendly parks. The problem, of course, is that Matt Boyd isn’t Justin Verlander.

Verlander had the best strikeout rate in the game at 34.8 percent. Boyd struck out a solid 22.4 percent, 33rd in baseball this year. Verlander had the fourth best walk rate in the game, while Boyd was 29th. Those are encouraging numbers from the Tigers’ lefty, but he doesn’t get quite the amount of weak contact that someone like Verlander produces and he allows a lot more balls in play. Producing a high volume of fly balls is a dangerous way for a pitcher to make a living in the current run scoring environment.

The fact that Boyd’s home and road splits was so dramatic is a bit concerning as well. It’s not hard to imagine that Comerica’s large centerfield corralled some would-be home run balls, while in myriad parks on the road, those same deep fly balls made it over the fences. His fly ball spray chart gives some support to that notion. And if that’s the case he could easily pitch just as well next year, yet look like a bit of a gas can.

It’s not too hard to see how things could’ve gone worse for Matt Boyd. With his total flyballs for the season overlaid over Comerica Park’s dimensions, we see a lot of deep flyouts. It’s hard to tell how much Comerica Park helped him overall, but it’s clear he walked a fine line out there at times and had plenty of loud flyouts. If you’re curious about that peculiar single deep down the first base line, it was a 354 foot wall-banger off the bat of Kansas City Royals catcher, Salvador Perez, on August 28th in Kauffman Stadium.

In the end, Boyd remains a bit of a wild card this winter. If he’s got his fastball velocity back and carries that, and his revamped slider, into 2019, there is a chance we could see him take the next step into a dependable mid-rotation starter posting 3-4 WAR seasons through his prime years. However, he already posted the best strikeout and walk rates of career in 2018, and was still a league average innings eater. The possibility that more fly balls leave the park next season is compelling enough to worry that perhaps 2018 was as good as it’s going to get.

Matt Boyd is still under team control for four more years. He won’t even be eligible for arbitration until after the 2019 season.. A cheap, controllable, left-handed starter carries plenty of value despite the pedestrian results. However, it’s probably not enough to draw good prospects out of a team interested in Boyd’s services. He may be at peak value already, but if this is it, the potential return still isn’t enough to forego giving him another season in the Olde English D in which to try and level up his game.

Unless the Tigers can really compel a nice prospect package for Boyd, perhaps by combining him with someone like Shane Greene, he’s probably fine right where he is. The Tigers will look to him in 2019 to provide depth and durability to a rotation that needs all the help it can get.

Maybe, just maybe, his best years are still ahead.


What grade would you give Matt Boyd’s performance in 2018

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  • 3%
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