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Is Matt Boyd destined for the bullpen?

It all depends on his changeup.

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Detroit Tigers
The demeanor of a man who can’t retire righties.
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s say you’re not a Tigers fan. (To borrow a line from Deadspin’s “Why Your Team Sucks” series: Some people are fans of the Detroit Tigers. But many, many more people are NOT fans of the Detroit Tigers.) You’re just a general baseball lover — maybe someone with a fantasy team, maybe a stat geek, or maybe just someone who likes watching multimillionaires in pajamas fling a piece of leather and yarn at each other.

At a time of year like this, when you’re waiting for baseball to start, you’ll try to occupy yourself however you can. With the WBC over, that usually means looking at statistics pages, and for BtBS readers, that usually means FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus. So one day, you’re poking through the leaderboards, and you see Matt Boyd.

Who’s Matt Boyd? You’ll look at the 2016 stats — in 20 games (18 of them starts) and 97 13 innings, he put up a 107 ERA-, a 111 FIP-, a 124 DRA-, and a 110 cFIP. Those are a lot of numbers, all of which tell you one thing: He was bad, but not totally awful. He can start every fifth day, and occasionally he’ll give you a chance to win; with that said, you’d definitely like to do better.

You’ll then notice two things about Boyd.

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Detroit Tigers Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

A: He’s a lefty.

Boyd platoon splits, 2016

Handedness PA AVG OBP SLG wOBA
Handedness PA AVG OBP SLG wOBA
vs. L 74 .169 .270 .328 .266
vs. R 338 .274 .325 .474 .341
Data via FanGraphs

B: He has trouble with righties.

From here, you — and by “you,” I mean me — may come to an obvious conclusion: Boyd should move to the bullpen! He’s a mediocre starter who dominates same-handed hitters, and that’s something every team could use in the late innings. Why don’t the Tigers just make him a LOOGY and find another arm to round out their rotation? Problem solved.

Well, reader, you — and again, I mean me — aren’t as bright as you look. As most Tigers fan would tell you, Boyd clearly has the potential to stick in a big-league rotation. Look at what BP’s Chris Crawford wrote when Detroit acquired Boyd in the David Price trade:

Boyd was a senior signing out of Oregon State in 2013, but has been borderline spectacular in his time in the Jays’ system … Boyd has a chance to become a functional member of a pitching staff.

Boyd isn't going to be more than a no. 4 on a good team, but cost-controlled southpaws certainly have their place in an organization, and he could be a part of the Tigers’ rotation as soon as this fall.

FanGraphs’ Kiley McDaniel concurred:

[Boyd is an] above-average-stuff lefty with some funk … Predictably, Boyd rushed his way to the big leagues as a pitchability lefty that magically got two notches more stuff and he’s learning how to use these new weapons, but I’d imagine he’ll be a solid back-end starter soon with a slight chance he could have enough funk/feel/pitchabilty to be even better.

Over the last two years in the minors, Boyd has pitched to a 1.86 ERA in 178 23 innings. That’s no fluke, either — he’s posted a 23.8 percent strikeout rate, 6.5 percent walk rate, and 1.9 percent home run rate in that span. And down on the farm, he’s performed just as well against righties (.245 wOBA) as he has against lefties (.253 wOBA).

So if Boyd retired all the minor-league hitters he faced, you might wonder, why has he labored in the Show? That platoon split comes back around here; it’s a little trickier than it first appears. By some metrics, Boyd struggled against lefties and dominated righties — but overall, the opposite-handed hitters hurt him the most:

Boyd platoon splits, 2016

Handedness K% BB% HR% BABIP
Handedness K% BB% HR% BABIP
vs. L 14.9% 8.1% 2.7% .173
vs. R 21.0% 6.8% 4.4% .311
Data via FanGraphs

His peripherals back up each of these stats. Against right-handed hitters, Boyd threw 66.3 percent strikes and 11.1 percent whiffs; against left-handed hitters, he threw 65.8 percent strikes and 6.0 percent whiffs. At the same time, though, he had a 57.4 percent ground ball rate and 24.1 percent hard contact rate versus lefties, compared to 33.8 percent and 31.3 percent, respectively, versus righties.

Boyd seems to have two different approaches — he pitched to contact when facing a lefty, and powered past righties. The problem is that the latter strategy didn’t work well enough; his strikeouts and control couldn’t compensate for the hard contact made by right-handed hitters. If he can start to negate that, he’ll be able to stick around.

The issue, as it so often does, comes down to location. Boyd liked to target left-handers down and away, an area he seldom hit versus right-handers:

Images via Brooks Baseball

Against lefties, Boyd put 28.5 percent of his pitches in the closest two-fifths of the zone. Against righties, he threw inside 37.7 percent of the time. You can see he tried to move away from the right-handed hitters; he just wasn’t able to do it often enough, and they made him pay.

The good news is Boyd’s already partway there, thanks to his terrific offspeed pitch. Both Crawford and McDaniel praised Boyd’s changeup, and you can see why. The pitch had one of the lowest velocities among starters, along with a boatload of vertical movement. The slow, rising effect gave the cambio a 22.0 percent whiff rate and 16.4 percent popup rate, each of which was the best in Boyd’s arsenal. Together, those abilities made the pitch distinct:

The orange arrow indicates Boyd, but you already knew that.
Data via FanGraphs

Boyd’s change isn’t quite as great as, say, Rich Hill’s four-seam fastball — seriously, that thing is ridiculous — but it still helps him against righties, who saw the pitch 18.4 percent of the time last year. (Unsurprisingly, he went with a sinker/slider one-two punch when facing fellow southpaws.)

Largely because of that changeup, righties hit a popup 7.1 percent of the time they put the ball in play against Boyd — more than twice the MLB average (3.4 percent). That Boyd ran a .311 BABIP with that many infield flies might be the partial result of all that hard contact he allowed, but it’s also probably unlucky; with the luck dragons on his side, he should retire righties a little more often on balls in play.

Even figuring out righties wouldn’t make Boyd an ace. Throughout his time in the minors, he’s been much older than the competition — we’d expect a 25-year-old pitching at Triple A to have some success — so you shouldn’t expect that sub-two ERA to translate to the majors. Still, he can hold down a spot in a big-league rotation, as Crawford and McDaniel predicted.

You’d be forgiven (by me) for not knowing who Matt Boyd is; starters with stat lines like his don’t stand out. If you follow the Tigers, though, you may in fact be cheering for him — he’s earned a spot in the club’s rotation after a strong spring training. Detroit could surprise this year, and this southpaw taking a step forward could be the difference. Not every lefty is a LOOGY in the making.


Ryan Romano is the co-managing editor for Beyond the Box Score. He also writes about the Orioles for Camden Depot, sometimes. Follow him on Twitter if you enjoy angry tweets about Maryland sports.