Tuesday’s Tigers-Red Sox will feature a pair of left-handed starters. One of them has looked like a bonafide ace this season, with a monster strikeout rate and the highest WAR total in the league. The other has struggled with home runs, and is largely inconsistent from start to start.
Somehow, Matthew Boyd and Chris Sale have traded places in 2019.
After mixing in a handful of curveballs in his first couple starts, Boyd has essentially become a two-pitch pitcher. He is throwing either a four-seam fastball or a slider more than 85 percent of the time, and the results have been spectacular. His whiff rate is still at a career-best 16.1 percent, and he has fanned at least six batters in each of his four starts. The strikeouts have tailed off a bit lately, though, and FanGraphs’ pitch values suggest Boyd’s two offerings have been good, but not necessarily “best in the league” caliber like his WAR total.
Still, it’s hard not to like what Boyd has done this year. He didn’t seem to have his best stuff in his last start against the Pittsburgh Pirates, but still worked seven innings while striking out seven hitters to just one walk. It’s the kind of outing one would hope to see from a top-of-the-rotation arm; even though the Tigers didn’t win, Boyd was able to eat innings and keep his team within striking distance.
Can he do the same against the high-powered Red Sox on
Detroit Tigers (10-10) at Boston Red Sox (9-13)
Time/Place: 1:05 p.m., Fenway Park
SB Nation site: Over the Monster
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: LHP Matthew Boyd (1-1, 2.96 ERA) vs. LHP Chris Sale (0-4, 8.50 ERA)
Game 21 Pitching Matchup
Chris Sale has not looked like Chris Sale this season, and it is baffling. The 30-year-old lefthander was arguably the best starter on a per-inning basis in the American League last season, accumulating 6.2 fWAR in just 158 frames; only Justin Verlander had more WAR among AL starters, and he threw 56 more innings than Sale.
The first thing people might point to is velocity. Sale’s four-seam fastball is down a full three miles per hour compared to last season, and opponents are teeing off on it — in 21 at-bats that ended with a four-seamer, Sale has allowed 11 hits, including three home runs. His other pitches haven’t been so bad, other than a couple of homers off of his changeup. Both of those offerings are down a bit velocity-wise, but not as much as the fastball.
I don’t know that velocity is the whole answer, though.
As the chart shows, Sale has dialed back his velocity before, most notably in early 2018 before he ramped up in the middle of the year. He was able to hold opponents in check in those early months, with a 2.31 ERA and 5.63 strikeout-to-walk ratio last March and April. He was similarly dominant early on in 2016 and 2017, so this isn’t an annual thing, a la Justin Verlander’s April struggles early in his career.
My guess is that it has to do with how the Red Sox brought Sale (and many of their starters) along during spring training. Sale’s first true game action of the spring came on March 16, roughly three weeks later than that of most starting pitchers on other clubs. Boston’s reasoning here was sound — Sale has had injury issues over the past couple years, and the Sox are coming off a deep and taxing October run, one in which Sale made a pair of relief appearances on short rest. The Red Sox are playing the long game with Sale, and banking on their loaded roster coming back from an early season deficit in the standings.
But how does that impact this game? Sale seems to be rounding into form, even if the results on the scoreboard aren’t quite there. He threw a season-high 93 pitches in his last outing, and averaged 96.1 mph on the radar gun with his four-seam fastball. His six strikeouts were also a season-high, and he started to collect more whiffs with his slider. If these trends continue, expect him to have his way with Detroit’s struggling lineup.
Key matchup: Matthew Boyd vs. Fenway Pahhk
Boyd has only made one career start in Boston, and it went much better than one might expect. He held the eventual World Series champions to two runs in 6 1⁄3 innings, with six strikeouts to just four hits allowed. He allowed a home run, which can happen in Fenway Park, and especially when facing this offense. The Sox still haven’t hit their stride offensively yet, but were able to score six runs in two of their three wins over the first place Tampa Bay Rays last weekend.
But as long as the Sox aren’t allowed to play wall ball, Boyd can keep this lineup in check. Fenway Park is a hitter-friendly venue, but not when it comes to home runs. Center and right field are quite large, and Boyd will have JaCoby Jones out there hunting down anything he can get to. As long as Boyd (and Detroit’s other pitchers) keep the ball to the middle of the field and away from the Green Monster, they should be able to generate a lot of lazy fly outs — and hopefully plenty of scoreless innings.
Boyd and the Tigers make it two in a row with a low-scoring win.