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Tigers vs. Pirates Preview: The Matthew Boyd show continues against NL competition

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The Pirates are more of a contact-oriented team, but will that slow down Matthew Boyd’s sky-high strikeout rate?

Detroit Tigers v New York Yankees Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

We are only three starts into Matthew Boyd’s 2019 season, but between some very noticeable changes he made in 2018 and an absolutely sky-high strikeout rate to start the current year, it doesn’t feel like a stretch to say that there is something very real going on with the 28-year-old lefthander.

The only question left at this point is: how real? We can safely say that Boyd will not continue to strike out 40 percent of the batters he faces this year, and his FIP will eventually move north of 1999 Pedro Martinez. But, assuming he stays healthy, he also seems like a fair bet to put up his best season to date, with career-highs in innings pitched, strikeouts, and many other statistical categories (Fun fact: if he makes 30 more starts, Boyd only needs to average 4.3 strikeouts per outing to eclipse his previous career high).

We will likely make this comparison a few times throughout the season, but Boyd’s slider-heavy breakout is similar to that of Patrick Corbin. The Nationals’ new $140 million man upped his slider usage more gradually, but his jump in whiff rate on that pitch from 2017 to 2018 is similar to what we have seen through Boyd’s first three starts. Where Boyd will regress comes elsewhere; he currently has a gaudy 17.2 percent whiff rate on his four-seam fastball, which is basically peak Aroldis Chapman territory. We may see a slight uptick in whiffs on Boyd’s fastball this year as more hitters focus on the off-speed stuff, but no, that rate will not double from last year’s 8.39 percent.

His challenge this time? A Pirates lineup that has been much better at making contact than the three others he has faced so far in 2019.

Pittsburgh Pirates (8-6) at Detroit Tigers (8-7)

Time/Place: 6:40 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation site: Bucs Dugout
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Joe Musgrove (1-1, 0.00 ERA) vs. LHP Matthew Boyd (1-1, 2.60 ERA)

Game 16 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Musgrove 15.1 27.3 5.5 1.98 0.6
Boyd 17.1 40.3 8.3 1.02 1.0

If any of the players the Houston Astros sent to Pittsburgh were going to help the Pirates “win” the Gerrit Cole trade, it would have been* righthander Joe Musgrove. The 26-year-old drew headlines last spring because many projection systems predicted he would equal Cole’s production in 2018, let alone in the several club-controlled seasons beyond that.

That... didn’t happen, but it’s not exactly his fault. Musgrove put up a respectable 2.2 fWAR in 115 13 injury-riddled innings, with an ERA that was a bit higher than his FIP. He saw his strikeout rate dip ever so slightly, but he cut his walk rate to an excellent 4.7 percent despite logging a career-high innings total in 19 starts.

Musgrove appears to be healthy this year, and it has shown up in his early season numbers. His strikeout rate has jumped to 27.3 percent in the early going, though he has only managed a slight bump in his swinging strike rate (up to 12.7 percent). His slider usage has returned to nearly 30 percent, where he sat in his final season with the Astros. He is also mixing in his changeup more than before, mostly as a put-away pitch against right-handed hitters. The results? About the same as last season, when he managed a gaudy 26.9 percent whiff rate on his change-piece.

Velocity-wise, Musgrove isn’t quite where he has been in previous seasons. It seems to be a bit of a concern, though not one that has sidelined him (or even slowed him down, really) so far this season.

Musgrove had some arm pain early in spring training. He attributed that to not trusting his core and using his arm too much instead of his lower body to generate power.

Now, the 26-year-old right-hander says he feels good. There’s still some work to do, though.

“I don’t feel as if I have as much power and velocity as I normally do,” Musgrove said. “I’m still able to locate my stuff and get the action on the pitches that I normally do.

*Sorry Pirates fans, but it’s safe to say that the Cole deal is already an L.

Key matchup: Pirates hitters vs. left-handed pitching

We are still less than three weeks into the 2019 season, so many numbers still need to be taken with a grain of salt. This potentially includes Pittsburgh’s poor numbers against left-handed pitching; through 14 games, the Bucs are hitting just .216/.286/.284 against southpaws. Their 61 wRC+ against lefties is the fourth-lowest in baseball so far, and they own MLB’s third-highest strikeout rate against lefties.

But remember, the samples at this point in the season are still quite small. Three of the top five teams in that previous link are the Yankees, Indians, and Blue Jays — the three teams Boyd has already faced this year. Either he has been very fortunate to face teams that can’t hit lefties... or his early season performance is largely skewing this particular statistic

I’m betting on the latter, but that doesn’t mean the Pirates can’t be had by a good lefty. Of the three lefties they have faced so far, two have worked at least seven innings while striking out 11 hitters — former Tigers division rival Jose Quintana and the very man we compared Boyd to above, Patrick Corbin.

Prediction

Boyd gets the Tigers back in the win column with another dominant performance.