Matthew Boyd, 29, has increasingly become a bright spot for a Tigers team that has lost an astonishing 310 games over the last three major league seasons. Last year, after posting a 24.8% K-BB% and 2.87 FIP over 72 2/3 innings pitched through May 30, he emerged as a popular trade candidate for a rebuilding Detroit squad. Those rumors cooled over the next two months, as Boyd allowed 10 home runs in June and five more in July to drive his ERA up to 3.94; his FIP rose to 3.46 by the end of that month.
Boyd ended the season with a 4.32 FIP, a 23.8% K-BB%, and 3.3 WAR — all career highs — but that progress was somewhat obscured both by the Tigers’ poor performance and by a second half so markedly worse than his first, particularly in terms of home runs allowed. That’s a shame, because 2019 was in fact the third consecutive year of material improvement for a pitcher who, despite his obvious talents and relative youth, hasn’t yet put together a full season in which he looks the way he did in the early part of 2019:
The challenge Boyd faced in 2019, as Craig noted in July, was that his heavy reliance on his fastball and slider — he threw those two pitches a combined 90% of the time — made his approach at times too predictable for big league hitters, resulting in an awful lot of home runs allowed. Boyd used to throw a curveball, too (18% of the time as recently as 2017), but a redesign of his then-weak slider after the 2017 season left his two breaking pitches looking a little too similar to one another, and Boyd dropped the curveball from his repertoire almost entirely over the course of 2018 and ’19. By the end of last season, hitters could expect a fastball nearly 75% of the time on three-ball counts. In consequence, they hit .309 against the pitch in June, .304 in July, and .344 in August.
In September, after tinkering with a sinker as a third pitch for most of the summer and in an attempt to stem the bleeding, Boyd re-inserted the changeup into his repertoire, throwing that pitch 10% of the time for the first time since August 2018. The results were promising. Batters crushed the changeup when it was thrown (slugging .500 against it) but suddenly struggled against the fastball, hitting .245 against it despite no meaningful changes to its velocity, movement, or release point. Because Boyd threw the fastball nearly six times as often as the changeup, that was a trade he was more than happy to make. Here’s Boyd getting Yoán Moncada looking with a fastball in September:
But the changeup wasn’t going to be the long-term solution. Despite his increased use of the pitch in September, Boyd has never shown an inclination to throw changeups anywhere except just off the plate outside, which limits its utility as a pitch to keep batters honest inside the zone. What Boyd needed was a third pitch he could feel comfortable throwing for a strike inside the zone, and ideally one with some distinction from his two existing pitches in terms of both horizontal and vertical movement. And, voila: this season, Boyd is getting ready to debut a revamped curveball. Here he is striking out DJ LeMahieu with that curveball last Thursday:
Boyd has been public about the work he’s put in this offseason to take a pitch the spin rate of which sat at a disappointing 17th-percentile in the majors last year and turn it into a third offering he can rely on. The key, as I mentioned at the top of the piece, is making the pitch look sufficiently different from his slider that it widens his arsenal against big league hitters rather than give him a third pitch in name only. That’s involved throwing it with a somewhat raised arm slot from where it was a year ago. Compare Boyd giving up a home run on a curve in June to what you saw from last Thursday:
To my eye, there’s a little bit more depth on the pitch we saw against LeMahieu compared to the pitch Cron sent into the left field seats. Now, one pitch is not much of a sample, and prior versions of Boyd’s curve have in fact generated more fly balls and home runs than most of his other pitches. Boyd will also need to prove to himself and to hitters that he’s willing and able to throw the curve for a strike early in counts, which is where hitters were at their most aggressive against him last year and where the bulk of the damage they did against him came.
Spring is too early to know whether Boyd’s changes will work for him — or even last — but they do suggest that there is at least a possibility that the Matthew Boyd we see in 2020 has the control and know-how he’s developed over the last three seasons of improvement, as well as a third pitch that works well for him and suppresses some of the hard contact in the air he surrendered in 2019.
That Matthew Boyd could be quite effective indeed, and given his underlying performance last year, he doesn’t have to improve that much to look like one of the better starting pitchers in the game, at least for stretches. If he does that, the Tigers will have a choice to make once again this summer. Does Boyd become a means to a rebuilding end, or a rotation stalwart to eventually be joined by prospects Matt Manning, Casey Mize, and Tarik Skubal? It’s hard to know what path they’ll choose to take — an awful lot depends on what Detroit thinks their 2022 season will look like — but at this point I am sufficiently intrigued by Boyd’s profile to not be surprised if he ends up pitching an inning or two at the All-Star game in Los Angeles this summer.
Rian Watt is a contributor to FanGraphs based in Seattle. His work has appeared at Vice, Baseball Prospectus, The Athletic, FiveThirtyEight, and some other places too. By day, he works with communities around the world to end homelessness.