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Tigers vs. White Sox Preview: Matthew Boyd has yet to find his strikeout touch in 2021

Boyd hasn’t missed many bats this year, but the underlying numbers suggest this may change soon.

Kansas City Royals v Detroit Tigers Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

Thanks to Wednesday’s inclement weather, we will be treated to what is quickly becoming one of my most-hated rules in sports on Thursday. The Tigers and White Sox will play two seven-inning doubleheaders that serve little purpose other than force us to argue about what exactly constitutes a no-hitter.

I won’t go into a full-blown tirade about Madison Bumgarner’s seven-inning dominance from over the weekend, but I think there is an iron-clad argument to be made.

  1. If Bumgarner pitched the entire game and did not allow any hits, it should be considered a no-hitter.
  2. If Major League Baseball does not want to recognize a seven-inning game as a no-hitter, then they shouldn’t be playing seven-inning games.

Since I don’t necessarily understand what lopping off a couple innings from either game really does here — don’t pretend like this is about COVID-19 when Texas is allowed to fill their stadiums right now, MLB — we’re forced to make do with a rule almost as dumb as the one that has people actually clamoring for ties in baseball.

Plus, longer games would give Tony La Russa more chances to leave his starter in the game for far too long.

Detroit Tigers (8-16) at Chicago White Sox (12-10)

Time/Place: 5:10 p.m., 8:10 p.m., Guaranteed Rate Field
SB Nation site: South Side Sox
Media: Bally Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Game 1 Pitching Matchup: RHP Casey Mize (1-2, 5.23 ERA) vs. LHP Carlos Rodón (3-0, 0.47 ERA)

Game 56 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Mize 57.2 20.1 8.5 4.43 0.6
Keuchel 59.2 12.0 7.2 4.87 0.2

From Cameron’s excellent preview of Wednesday’s scheduled matchup:

Before this season, Carlos Rodón was just another mediocre former top prospect who probably wasn’t long for a starter role after having Tommy John surgery in 2019. Now, Carlos Rodón is looking like a capital-A ace having gained a few MPH to his fastball that he pairs with a slider that hitters are batting a cool .000 off of. Anything else notable about Rodón to mention? Oh yeah, he threw a no-hitter two weeks ago, where he was touching 98 mph in the ninth inning, the hardest he’s ever thrown in his career. Like all things, time will tell if this is for real, but as of right now this dude looks very much for real.

Game 2 Pitching Matchup: LHP Matthew Boyd (2-2, 1.82 ERA) vs. RHP Dylan Cease (0-0, 4.15 ERA)

Game 26 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Boyd 34.2 16.7 4.5 2.96 1.1
Cease 17.1 25.3 15.2 4.35 0.1

This is Cease’s third season with the White Sox, and for the most part he is the same pitcher we saw when he debuted in 2019. He has some nasty stuff, generates a lot of strikeouts, but doesn’t always know where the baseball is going. So far in 2021, his healthy strikeout rate is offset by a 15.2 percent walk rate, resulting in a lower K-BB% than Matthew Boyd (more on him in a bit).

Because of all those walks, Cease has not worked very deep into games so far this year. He still has yet to make it through five innings in a start, and even Tony La Russa has found it in him to yank Cease before he reaches the 100-pitch mark. The Tigers offense, for all its faults, has been the American League’s best team* at driving up pitch counts, with 4.07 pitches seen per plate appearance. While this has somehow only led to baseball’s third-lowest walk rate, it could mean further trouble for Cease, who has baseball’s second-lowest first pitch strike rate (min. 10 innings).

There are two sides to every story, though, and the other side of this one is that Cease throws smoke, misses a lot of bats, and is facing the team with baseball’s highest* strikeout rate. If he can even sort of locate, it could make for a long night for the Tigers.

*Prior to Wednesday’s game, don’t @ me if I jinxed them

Key matchup: Matthew Boyd vs. his faltering strikeout rate

Boyd’s propensity to give up home runs will be a talking point for the rest of his career, so let’s go down a different path here. The 30-year-old has gotten off to a strong start this year by limiting walks and the aforementioned gopher ball, but it has seemingly come at a cost; through five starts, Boyd has just 22 strikeouts in 34 23 innings. His 16.7 strikeout rate thus far is the lowest of his MLB career, and is approximately half that of the impressive 30.2 percent clip he posted in 2019. Given how much damage hitters have done when making contact with Boyd’s pitches over the years, one could argue that strikeouts are even more important to his success than most pitchers.

Something doesn’t add up here, though. Boyd’s swinging strike rate is down to 9.1 percent, his lowest since his debut season in 2015. But he is generating more swings outside the strike zone (37.7 O-swing percentage, the highest of his career) while hitters are watching more strikes go by (64.8 Z-swing percentage, his lowest since 2015). The weird part? Opponents are making way more contact with those pitches outside the zone (74.4 percent contact rate, almost 20 percentage points higher than 2019), hence the lower strikeout rate.

For the visually inclined, Boyd’s whiff percentage and chase rate should not look like this.

I’m not sure which is the outlier, but I’m hoping this is just an early season oddity and Boyd starts to miss a few more bats.