Detroit Tigers: Matthew Boyd’s Unprecedented Year

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A deeper look at Matthew Boyd’s Janus-faced disaster.

Just a few weeks ago we wrote about Matthew Boyd using his changeup more to save his season.

Then he got destroyed again.

We aren’t quite ready to abandon our previous theory — Boyd was uncharacteristically wild in his rough outing against the Brewers — but for more than a year now he has sandwiched rough outings around the occasional good start. His 2020 ERA stands at a horrific 7.63.

If Matthew Boyd were simply another bum with lousy stuff, poor command, and no real signs of skill, then we probably wouldn’t think much more about him. But we’ve seen the skill before, most notably during the first two months of 2019, and he’s still doing some things at an above-average rate during his brutal 2020 campaign.

Judging anyone on the shortened 2020 season seems a bit unfair, but if we go back to last June we get pretty close to a full season of results. There are 39 qualified starting pitchers over that time, and among them Matthew Boyd ranks 14th in K%, 23rd in BB%, and last in both HR/9 and ERA.

None of those ranks should be surprising to Tigers fans, but if we dig a bit deeper we find they are unique: Never in MLB history has a pitcher been as good and as bad as Matthew Boyd.

Boyd’s Puzzling Pieces

So what do we mean by that? Well, FanGraphs offers a very useful +Stats feature to show us how player rank against league average. It’s the same concept as OPS+ or wRC+, where 100 is average and each number above 100 means 1% higher than average, while each number below means 1% below average.

Here are Matthew Boyd’s relevant numbers from our sample:

IP

GS

K%+

BB%+

K/BB+

HR/9+

ERA-

Matthew Boyd

156.1

29

126

83

151

183

134

Over his past 29 starts Matthew Boyd struck out 26% more batters than the average starter, walked 17% fewer batters, gave up 83% more home runs, and allowed 34% more earned runs. No one in the history of major-league baseball can match those four percentages. Very few pitchers have even come close.

Stop, Homer Time

It’s obvious home runs have been Matthew Boyd’s main issue, and he’s not alone. There have been 816 individual MLB seasons in which a pitcher allowed home runs at a rate 50% or higher than the league average.

We need to get that sample much lower. If we cut out everyone but the pitchers with a strikeout rate 20-30% above-average, our sample drops to 34. Then, if we cut it again to pitchers whose walk rates were 10-20% above average, it drops to the following 9 names:

Name Year IP GS K%+ BB%+ K/BB+ HR/9+ ERA-
Matthew Boyd sample 156.1 29 126 83 151 183 134
Leon Cadore 1921 211.2 30 122 83 147 192 111
Nels Potter 1943 168.1 13 122 86 142 155 82
Jim Bunning 1963 248.1 35 124 80 155 150 105
Orlando Pena 1964 219.1 32 120 90 132 172 118
Pete Richert 1966 245.2 34 125 85 147 156 99
Denny Lemaster 1966 171 27 129 80 160 154 103
John Candelaria 1976 217 31 120 80 150 159 91
Fergie Jenkins 1979 259 37 128 87 148 154 98

It’s exceedingly rare to find starters with good strikeout and walk rates who also have severe home run issues, but they do exist, as you can see above.  But what you’ll see for almost all of them is that those positive strikeout and walk rates tend to offset the home run issues, leading to relatively average ERAs.

But remember, to get this list we had to drop the HR rate to “just” 50% above average. Only Cadore and Pena were really within shouting distance of Boyd in terms of homers. There’s not a whole lot to be gained from this list other than to hit home how rare what Boyd has done is.

But, if we fool around with the data a bit more we can find two contemporary seasons in the same ballpark as Boyd, and maybe we can learn something from them.

Dylan Bundy

Name Year IP GS K%+ BB%+ K/BB+ HR/9+ ERA-
Matthew Boyd sample 156.1 29 126 83 151 183 134
Dylan Bundy 2018 171.2 31 111 87 128 176 125

Dylan Bundy is just 27 and he’s already had a fascinating career. He was a top-5 overall pick who debuted in the majors at just 19, and then he missed the next three seasons with injuries. He made it back to the majors in 2016 and bounced between the bullpen and the rotation, but eventually ended up as a league average pitcher. He was slightly above-average in 2017, was buried in an avalanche of homers in 2018, and then returned to league-average status last year. He has seemingly reinvented himself in 2020, though, and currently ranks in the top 10 in both fWAR and bWAR.

James Shields

Name Year IP GS K%+ BB%+ K/BB+ HR/9+ ERA-
Matthew Boyd sample 156.1 29 126 83 151 183 134
James Shields 2010 171.2 31 118 67 177 153 132

James Shields ran into his home run troubles in his 5th season as a starter. They coincided with a fairly sharp uptick in strikeouts, and the following year the strikeouts remained by the homers didn’t, and Shields made the All-star team and finished 3rd in the American League Cy Young vote. He went on to have several more good years, and then in 2016 the Chicago White Sox traded away the presumed 2020 National League MVP to land Shields for 2.5 seasons. Perhaps there’s hope for Matthew Boyd yet.

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