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Tigers vs. Blue Jays Preview: Matthew Boyd is currently the Tigers’ ace

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No Tigers pitcher has been on lately more than Boyd.

Detroit Tigers v Seattle Mariners Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Matthew Boyd, Tigers ace.

That sentence sure seemed unlikely prior to the season, didn’t it? Sure, Boyd had a strong finish to his 2017 campaign, but few expected him to cure all of his ails in one offseason and emerge as a true frontline starter. Between a drop in arm slot and heavy reliance on a revamped slider, Boyd has pitched his way to a 3.00 ERA through 10 starts. His advanced metrics were once a bit scary, but have also come back down to earth; he is sporting a 3.49 FIP at the moment, in large part thanks to a very low home run rate.

While the home run rate could eventually regress to the mean, Boyd is still measurably better than he was in 2017. He’s also measurably better than the rest of the Tigers staff at the moment.

Blaine Hardy has thrown his hat into the ring over the past couple weeks, but he hasn’t been able to do it for nearly three months now like Boyd has.

Can Boyd deliver another Tigers ‘W’ on Saturday?

Toronto Blue Jays (25-32) at Detroit Tigers (27-30)

Time/Place: 4:10 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation site: Bluebird Banter
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: LHP J.A. Happ (7-3, 3.84 ERA) vs. LHP Matthew Boyd (3-4, 3.00 ERA)

Game 58 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Happ 65.2 29.5 6.7 3.46 1.4
Boyd 57.0 19.6 8.7 3.49 1.2

I don’t know what it is about J.A. Happ, but the Blue Jays always seem to score runs in bunches when he is on the mound. Back in 2016, Happ rolled to a 20-4 record and a sixth-place Cy Young finish. While he pitched well in his own right that season — he managed a 3.18 ERA with a FIP under 4 in 195 innings — he also ranked third among qualified MLB pitchers with 6.3 runs of support per start.

The 2018 Blue Jays offense isn’t nearly as good as their 2016 counterparts, but they are still scoring with abandon when Happ is on the mound. In his 11 starts this season, the Blue Jays have scored 75 runs, or nearly seven per start. It hasn’t been consistent across the board -- they have hit double digits three times — but have generally given Happ plenty of cushion. To his credit, Happ is pitching well enough to rack up all those wins. He has a 3.84 ERA in those 11 starts, and has limited opponents to four runs or fewer in 10 of them.

The “how” is interesting, though. Happ has been a strikeout machine so far, fanning nearly 30 percent of batters after hovering around 20 percent for most of his career. As Travis Sawchik pointed out at FanGraphs, it’s because he’s throwing his best pitches — a pair of fastballs — more often than ever.

Happ is an outlier. In an era during which more and more pitchers have gone away from their fastballs in favor of swing-and-miss spin, Happ leans about as heavily upon the fastball as any pitcher. He’s thrown the pitch roughly 72.8% of the time this season, most amongst qualified starters. Happ has thrown his best pitches, fastballs, while simultaneously moving away from his slider, changeup, and curveball — all of which rank as negative pitches for his career according to linear weights. Happ’s four- and two-seamer are unique in that they have rare vertical movement separation between them — a point documented by Eno Sarris at the end of 2016.

That vertical separation is important, as it makes his fastballs two very distinct pitches, rather than variations on a similar theme. One could even think of the two-seamer as a changeup, except one moves faster and is likely easier to command given then more natural grip on the ball.

Key matchup: Happ vs. all them righties

For all of the good Happ has done this year, he still has pretty significant platoon splits. Right-handed batters are hitting .245/.314/.399 against him this season, good enough for a .713 OPS that is nearly 300 points higher than what lefties have produced. The Tigers are likely to run eight right-handed batters out on Saturday — nine if they give Leonys Martin a rest — and have done well against southpaws in their own right; Detroit’s 113 wRC+ against lefties is sixth-best in baseball.

Prediction

Boyd rolls again and Detroit makes it four in a row.

Gameday reading