Matthew Boyd has come a long way since Tigers fans first got a look at their new acquisition back in 2015. Boyd arrived along with Daniel Norris and Jairo Labourt in the deal that sent David Price to the Toronto Blue Jays. At the time, Norris was the showpiece. However, Boyd is the one who has incrementally transformed himself into a very solid major league starter. Through two starts this season, he now looks ready for a true breakout campaign.
It all came together on Wednesday in perhaps the finest performance of his career as Boyd struck out 13 Yankees in a 2-1 win. That was the highest single game strikeout total by a Tigers pitcher since Max Scherzer’s 14 strikeout performance against the Pittsburgh Pirates back on August 14, 2014. Boyd also racked up the most strikeouts in a game by a Tigers lefty since franchise legend Mickey Lolich punched out 15 hitters back in 1972. Combined with Boyd’s 10 strikeout performance on March 29 against the Blue Jays, and he is currently your major league leader in strikeouts this season with 23.
So how did Boyd transform himself from a decent but unheralded pitching prospect into this Andrew Miller-looking strikeout artist you see before you? Well, it didn’t happen overnight. There have been numerous major changes along the way.
The evolution of Boyd’s delivery
The first, and perhaps the biggest adjustment, was the change in arm slot Boyd made during the 2016 season. From a relatively conventional three-quarters arm slot, Boyd began dropping down more, moving his release point to a low three-quarters position.
That change produced the makings of the sweeping pair of breaking balls Boyd now features. It also appeared to have improved his deception, by hiding the ball a little longer — from right-handed hitters, in particular. Still, while he was able to refine his repertoire and improve his command somewhat through the arm slot adjustment, the strikeouts still eluded him prior to this year. Giving up contact in this era, particularly in the air, is a dangerous proposition, and Boyd didn’t induce enough whiffs to balance out the occasional bursts of hard contact he allowed.
The rebuilt slider
Things started to change in 2018 when Boyd emerged with a rebuilt slider to punch out 22.4 percent of batters faced. To that point, he had never topped a 20 percent strikeout rate in a season. Between the 2017 and 2018 seasons, Boyd, as he typically does, worked out at Driveline Baseball’s academy in Washington. The main goal? To sharpen the slider. He came out of spring camp a year ago convinced he had finally found the breaking ball he’d been looking for.
The redesigned slider was much slower, averaging 80.5 miles per hour — the previous version had averaged 86.1 mph in 2017. The improved depth on the pitch, along with the sweeping horizontal movement produced by the lower arm slot all came together for him. Boyd responded correctly by leaning heavily on his new weapon. In 2017, Boyd threw the slider just 11 percent of the time. In 2018? He upped that to 31.1 percent as the slider became the foundation for how he sequenced hitters.
However, no one predicted the results we have seen early in the 2019 season. With 23 punchouts in two starts, Boyd currently leads the majors in strikeouts. It’s early, and the Yankees lineup he faced on Wednesday was missing dangerous hitters like Giancarlo Stanton, Miguel Andujar, and Aaron Hicks. But the stuff, and the interplay between Boyd’s redesigned repertoire, are undeniable. This is a very different pitcher than we saw in his first few seasons in Detroit, and the baseball world is taking notice.
Taking it to a higher level
Boyd had one key drawback entering this season that needed to be addressed. As we wrote in our review of his 2018 campaign, he became an extreme fly ball pitcher last season. In fact, he posted the second highest fly ball rate among qualified starters in 2018, right behind Justin Verlander. However, unlike Mr. Verlander, Boyd paid for it with a lot of home runs, particularly on the road. The culprit? His two-seam fastball.
Hitters posted an isolated power (ISO) of just .164 against his four-seam fastball in 2018. Against the two-seamer? Hitters clobbered him for a .318 ISO against. That discrepancy immediately makes anyone familiar with sequencing in the launch angle era cringe. Ditching the two-seamer almost entirely seemed to be in the offing. Based on his work thus far, Boyd appears to have agreed.
Per Brooks Baseball, Boyd has only thrown four total two-seamers in his two outings this season. Instead, he is using the four-seamer almost exclusively now (89 through two starts) and living at the top of the strike zone. This change, combined with the increased depth on the slider, creates very similar tunnels for his fastball, slider, and slow curveball, and is making it very tough on hitters through his first two outings.
This is a valiant effort by our friend Rob Friedman, and helps with visualization, but the slider in the gif actually hung up and outside — catcher John Hicks wanted that one on the hitter’s back foot. You can get a better idea of what Boyd is doing to hitters by imagining the high fastball paired with the nasty offering below.
You will also have a better idea why comparisons to lefties who create huge horizontal angle, such as Andrew Miller, were flying fast and furious on social media as Boyd carved his way through the Yankees lineup.
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. He is now working at three distinct velocity bands, with the fastball between 90-94 mph, the slider and changeup close to 80 mph, and the curve typically checking in around 70-72 mph. That separation generates a lot of wind in opposing bats, particularly as they all look so similar out of his hand.
We’re just two starts into the season. While the Bless You Boys staff had hopes of another modest breakout from Boyd this year, we’re not prepared to predict Cy Young candidacy just yet. Unlike Justin Verlander, Boyd doesn’t have the velocity and ridiculous backspin to pitch up in the zone without taking some lumps along the way. However, Comerica Park is a great place for fly ball pitchers, and if Boyd can continue to rack up strikeouts at a higher clip than ever before, he should be able to limit the damage when the long ball does rear its ugly head.
Overall it’s been a remarkable evolution, and a testimony to Boyd’s work ethic and unwillingness to settle for just a back-end starter role. He made fairly radical changes that many pitchers wouldn’t be able to stomach, and those adjustments to his delivery and slider have paid huge dividends. The final piece may be simply to continue paring back on his pitch mix and simply lean into his best pitches, leaving aside the two-seam fastball and perhaps even the changeup as well.