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Keep an eye on the Tigers’ Matthew Boyd

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Who is he? What does he want? Is his hot start for real?

Cleveland Indians v Detroit Tigers Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

McCovey Chronicles will be covering news from around the league all season long with our new daily MLB Chronicles column.

If you take a quick look at the FanGraphs’ pitching leaderboard, you’ll see 28-year old lefty Matthew Boyd of the Detroit Tigers atop that list leading all pitchers with an fWAR of 1.1. That’s after just three whole starts and all of 17.1 innings pitched. I confess: I had no idea who he was that very moment. Upon closer inspection, his three starts of 2019 have legitimately put him on everyone else’s radar. And, of course, if you play fantasy baseball, you probably already knew about him.

I say take a quick look, though, because he starts against the Pirates in just about thirty minutes, and last April, they knocked him around in just 3.2 innings. But that was last year, when he pitched 170 innings of 2-win ball, a 4.45 FIP, and 22.4% strikeout rate. In three starts this season against the Blue Jays in Toronto, the Yankees in New York, and Cleveland in Detroit, it’s a different story.

The beauty of small sample sizes is the mind blowing intensity of the ratios. A 15.06 K/9 (40.3% strikeout rate), a 1.01 FIP, and a 4.83 K/BB. Just to give that last number some context: the last three AL Cy Young Award winners had season ratios of 3.45 (Blake Snell - 2018), 7.36 (Corey Kluber - 2017), and 5.91 (Rick Porcello - 2016). His three start stretch included 23 strikeouts in starts one and two (10 Blue Jays and 13 Yankees) ahead of striking out just six in six innings against Cleveland.

Obviously, any three-game stretch can be misread as some sort of proof that a player has taken some leap forward, but let’s also consider that at 28 years old, five seasons in the big leagues, and 477 innings logged, a three-stretch start with this much dominance, especially one that starts a season, could just as well reflect a pitcher who has taken the next step.

The key to his newfound strikeout success (he also had 20 in 18 Spring Training innings) appears to have something to do with some tweaks to his pitch arsenal. Mainly, he’s gone away from his sinker / two-seam fastball and added more spin to his slider while slowing it down.

SB Nation’s Bless You Boys provides some insight into why the reduced velocity slider has been so effective in the early going:

The emphasis on horizontal movement, and the slower speed on Boyd’s new slider make it almost indistinguishable from his curveball when he chooses to pair them both. More importantly, the depth produced by the decreased velocity allows Boyd to start both pitches on a target line at the top of the strike zone — just like the fastball — and still manage to bury both breaking balls below the zone.

It looks like this:

Statcast shows a slider spin rate of 2,353 rpm, up from 2,322 a year ago and 2,319 in 2017. His slider velocity in that three-year stretch has also dropped from 86 to 80 to 78 to start 2019. Meanwhile, his fastball velocity hung around 92 from 2017-2018, but just 90.6 now, but with the same condition: he’s gotten more spin on the pitch, up to 2,392 rpm versus 2,282 and 2,241 the prior two seasons. All of that points to a pitcher who has figured something out.

Of course, baseball being what it is, tonight could be an adjustment. Then again, the .389 batting average on balls in play and 1.01 FIP suggest the opposite. He has been unlucky, and if you look at the Tigers’ defense, that’s probably the reason why. Left fielder Christin Stewart has a -4 defensive runs saved, Gordon Beckham at short has a -1 in just 20 innings, and all told, there are seven Tigers with UZR/150s in the negative, all but Beckham being outfielders. The team’s best defenders — Jeimer Candelario, Jordy Mercer, and Josh Harrison — are all on the infield, making it a little tricky for a flyball pitcher like Boyd.

The key will be that stuff. If he can keep striking out batters at a high rate, higher than his career rate of 8.0 per 9, anyway, and holding his walks at that career line of 3 per 9, the Tigers will really have something, either to build around or trade to speed up their rebuild.