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Detroit vs. Cleveland Preview: Matthew Boyd and Shane Bieber lock up in series finale

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Game 50 should be a fun pitching matchup.

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

Thursday afternoon, fans at Comerica Park will get a look at a pair of early AL Cy Young contenders on a breezy spring day in Detroit. Frankly, Gerrit Cole is running away with it so far, but the next five guys are closely bunched with Shane Bieber and Matthew Boyd included in the mix.

Of the two, obviously the Tigers lefty is the longshot. The reigning AL Cy Young winner is the latest in a long line of top shelf starters developed in Cleveland and is off to a fine start again this season. This is a rematch of their Opening Day clash, in which Boyd earned the win, while Bieber struck out 12 but surrendered a classic Miguel Cabrera home run to take the loss.

At this point in the season, what Tigers fans want to know, is whether this a repeat of Boyd’s hot start in 2019? Or has he really leveled up to a sustainable degree? Either way, Bieber is bound to be tough to beat today.

Detroit Tigers (19-30) vs. Cleveland Indians (26-21)

Time/Place: 1:10 p.m. EDT, Comerica Park

SB Nation Site: Covering the Corner

Media: Bally Sports, MLB.tv, Tigers Radio Network

Pitching Matchup: LHP Matthew Boyd (2-5, 3.08 ERA) vs. RHP Shane Bieber (4-3, 3.32 ERA)

Game 51 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Mize 52.2 18.7 9.3 4.56 0.5
Cole 64.2 38.5 3.3 1.7 2.8

There is an article’s worth of interesting things going on with Matthew Boyd, but for preview purposes, we’ll keep it simple. The thing that ruined start after start from June 2019 through the short 2020 season, was his vulnerability to home runs. So far, Boyd has really made progress in that regard.

His career home run rate per nine innings is 1.60. In 2020, it was 2.24. This season that number is 0.34. That’s just a bit suspicious if you’re hoping Boyd can continue his success. There are plenty of tangible things we can point to in order to explain the lack of home runs, but some regression is guaranteed.

On the plus side, the horizontal movement on Boyd’s fastball, slider, and changeup has improved markedly this season. He may be missing fewer bats, but he’s also missing the barrel more often when they do make contact. Contact as judged by average exit velocity isn’t weaker overall, but he’s getting more pop-ups, and has cut his barrel percentage almost in half over last year.

On the down side, Boyd isn’t striking out nearly as many hitters as he was the two previous seasons. Maybe trading punchouts for weak early contact can work, but he’s got to be able to dial up his best stuff, particularly his slider, when he does get into trouble. Boyd’s last 20 starts entering the season didn’t really seem like the real Matthew Boyd. But neither does the first nine this season. The truth is somewhere in between and we’re still waiting to see how it settles out.

One key seems to be the eye-popping ratio of first pitch strikes he’s throwing. So far its been 73.1 percent first pitch strikes, almost nine percent more than his previous high mark. He’s throwing less fastballs early in counts as well, mixing in all four offerings much more on the first pitch of an at-bat than he ever has before. As long as he can command them, we may have some lasting improvement as Boyd follows A.J. Hinch and Chris Fetter’s mantra of winning the race to two strikes.

As for Bieber, he reminds one very much of prime Corey Kluber at this point. A surgical fastball with great movement and two dominant breaking balls. He has the third best strikeout rate in the American League, while the Tigers offense has the worst strikeout rate in baseball, and rank third from the bottom in isolated power. The Tigers’ offense will need the BABIP gods and some timely hitting to do much damage today.

Key Matchup: Tigers vs. Fundamentals

There’s every reason to believe Boyd will keep the Tigers in this. But there’s also every reason to believe that Bieber will go seven innings with double digit strikeouts, giving the offense precious few opportunities to scratch across runs. If the Tigers are going to win this and split the series, they’re going to have to follow Wednesday night’s formula of strong defense, and combine it with the disciplined at-bats we’ve seen more of recently.