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Outliers: Matt Boyd Might Be Breaking Out After All

I haven’t been interested in picking up Matt Boyd at any point over the first five-and-half weeks of this season. His 3.00 ERA and 1.06 WHIP have been sufficiently tidy, but they are temptations I can resist. If not for a laughably low 1.8 runs of support per nine innings, Boyd would certainly have a better record than 1-3 after six starts. However, with a .248 BABIP and a minuscule 5.5 percent home run-to-flyball ratio (HR/FB), the lefty looks like the personification of the small sample caveat.

Fantasy owners who have bought in on Boyd can claim maverick status. Only 19 percent of the owners in ESPN and Yahoo leagues are rostering Boyd. Fantrax and CBS leagues tend to run deeper, and even there, he is owned, respectively, at rates of 49 and 32 percent. Now, after ignoring him for over a month, I’m ready to join the mavericks. Not only am I convinced that Boyd is having a genuine breakout despite a relative lack of strikeouts (17.9 percent rate) and ground balls (31.8 percent rate), but I find him to be one of the most interesting stories of the 2018 season to date.

Boyd is succeeding despite — or possibly because of — a substantial decrease in velocity. Around this time last season, he was averaging between 91 and 92 mph on his four-seam fastball, which is about 2 mph higher than where he has been in recent starts. His 81-82 mph slider is between 5 and 6 mph slower than it was a year ago. Not only is Boyd achieving a greater differential between his fastball and slider velocities, but batters are seeing speeds change more frequently, as he has increased his slider usage from 11 to 32 percent.

For Boyd, this is very much a conscious effort. He told the Detroit News last month, “I focus on changing speeds. My goal is to hit my spots right now and change speed on all my pitches — add and subtract with all my pitches and keep hitters off-balance.”

The confusion he has created, perhaps along with an 80 rpm increase in his four-seamer spin rate, has resulted in a lot of soft flyball contact. Of pitchers who have allowed at least 25 flyballs this season, no one has allowed flies to travel a shorter distance on average than Boyd. His average distance allowed of 288 feet is seven feet shorter than second-ranked Rick Porcello, and along with Justin Verlander, they are the only pitchers in this sample who have kept flyballs to an average distance below 300 feet. Of pitchers who have accumulated at least 10 innings on flyballs this season, only Aaron Nola and Jose Berrios have allowed hard contact on flyballs at a rate lower than Boyd’s 20.0 percent. Neither Nola nor Berrios is anywhere near Boyd’s prolific 51.4 percent flyball rate.

As these trends are based on only six starts, a small sample alert still applies in Boyd’s case. Still, he has been so extreme in his ability to limit hard flyball contact that regression could still land him in a favorable place. He should be a better-than-average pitcher on balls in play and outperform the league average on HR/FB. That’s what last season’s champions of low flyball distance — Ty Blach, Andrew Cashner, and Berrios — were able to do. With that should come wins and low ERA and WHIP, though owners shouldn’t count on Boyd for much help with strikeouts.

Another pitcher following Boyd’s path is Lucas Giolito, who is allowing hard contact on flyballs at a 23. 9 percent rate. He has a .237 BABIP to show for it, but because he has struggled to get hitters to swing at bad pitches (22.9 percent O-Swing%), Giolito has a 15.7 percent walk rate and 1.56 WHIP. He seems to be making progress, posting O-Swing rates above 29 percent in each of his last two starts, and that has allowed him to walk only two batters in each of those outings. If he can build on this trend while continuing to limit hard contact on flyballs, Giolito could make some serious progress on his WHIP and 7.03 ERA. He does face a degree of difficulty Boyd does not in that the White Sox’s home park — Guaranteed Rate Field — is more amenable to home runs than Detroit’s Comerica Park.

Finally, if you are enticed by the idea of improving ERA and WHIP with a pitcher in Boyd’s mold, but your league is deep enough that you can’t pluck Boyd off waivers, give Ryan Yarbrough a try. Poised to fill in for Yonny Chirinos (forearm) in the Rays’ rotation, Yarbrough has been allowing hard contact on flyballs at a 21.6 percent rate. Boyd has nothing on him when it comes to low slider velocity. as Yarbrough’s average of 79.6 mph is the fifth-lowest for any pitcher with at least 20 innings. The 11 mph differential between his slider and four-seam fastball is a couple of ticks greater than that of his Tigers counterpart.

Yarbrough’s avoidance of hard flyball contact has contributed to a .203 BABIP and a total of two home runs allowed over 24.1 innings. The latter is an impressive ratio, given that Yarbrough is inducing grounders at a 29.6 percent rate and owns the fifth-highest contact rate (87.1 percent) of any pitcher with at least 20 innings. Then again, Cashner had the American League’s ninth-lowest ERA (3.40) last season, despite being the most contact-prone starter in the circuit. That’s how far an aversion to hard flyball contact can take a pitcher.

Streaming pitchers update: After three weeks without streaming a starting pitcher in either Tout Wars or TGFBI, I finally have a new two-start streamer to add to my season-long experiment, in which I compare the results of the pitchers I stream against those of the pitchers I bench or drop. In TGFBI, I put bids of $33 on Jose Urena and Fernando Romero, both of whom are projected to make two starts this week. I came up $4 short on Romero, but that was moot, because my bid on him was contingent upon not getting Urena. I think I can safely assume that the vast majority of owners going into Week 7 were preferring Romero to Urena, but I don’t have a strong preference between the two hurlers. Both pitchers have tough matchups, but I gave Urena the edge with scheduled starts versus the Cubs at Wrigley Field and against the Braves at Marlins Park. Romero is tasked with a start at the Angels this weekend, already having faced the Cardinals in St. Louis on Monday.

At week’s end, I can see what I missed out on with Romero’s results, but the for the sake of my streamer experiment, the more relevant comparison is between Urena’s two starts and Marco Gonzales’ lone start at the Tigers. I benched the Mariners’ lefty, so his stats will be replaced by those compiled by Urena this week.

Statistical credits: FanGraphs, Brooks Baseball, Baseball Savant.

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