Matt Boyd managed a pretty impressive season as a starting pitcher in 2016. In two years, he has gone from an afterthought as a prospect and something of a throw-in during last season’s deadline deals, to looking like a viable starting pitcher. Yet, his run hit a wall late in the season. Boyd finished as the odd man out among the Detroit Tigers' young starting pitchers.
As the Tigers consider their rotation plans this offseason, understanding Boyd's season may point the way forward for general manager Al Avila's plans for in 2017. On the one hand, Boyd made clear and substantive improvements that bode well for continued progress from him next season. However, he once again struggled with inconsistency and fatigue down the stretch, drawing into question his durability as a starting pitcher.
Boyd clearly took a big step in the right direction in 2016. He pitched well for the Toledo Mud Hens in late April and May, perhaps doing some of his best work there. At the major league level, Boyd excelled in July and August, particularly, when a beleaguered Tigers starting rotation really needed him most. He posted a combined ERA well under 3.00 in those months. On the other hand, he sandwiched the good times with quite a few rough outings in both June and in September.
Let's take a look at what made Boyd successful in 2016.
Boyd's improved changeup
The advancement of Boyd's changeup during the summer months drove much of his success in 2016. Of particular note was the outstanding amount of weak contact he generated with it, improving his infield fly ball rate from 11.5 percent in 2015 to 14.4 percent this year. He also produced a fine whiff rate of 21.2 percent on the changeup. At the same time, he gave up fewer home runs on the pitch than he did in 2015. At his best, Boyd showed the ability to smother right-handed hitting with heavy doses of fastball and off-speed pitches, a development that allowed a glimpse of the pitcher Boyd may still become.
A big part of his success was location. Against right-handed hitters, in particular, Boyd consistently poured changeups away on the edge of the zone. He used the fastball in the same location to speed up bats, and then pulled the string on them again and again. In July and August, hitters were consistently off-balance, whiffing and flaring balls off the end of their bats for easy outs much of the time.
Boyd's changeup is kind of an oddity. Thrown at a slower velocity than most, the pitch also features a higher than average spin rate. As a result, it's a bit of a riding changeup that mimics a fastball very well, but is so slow that the pitch has a lot of late depth anyway. It bears some resemblance to that of Toronto Blue Jays starter Marco Estrada, who also throws a slow changeup out of a fairly high arm slot. Estrada throws his at about 78 miles per hour. Boyd throws his roughly 79 mph on average, ranking them both among the slowest of all major league pitchers. It's a tough pitch to recognize due to its late break, and substantial velocity separation, especially if the fastball is thrown from a similar arm slot.
Rich Dubee adjusted Boyd's arm angle
The bit of mystery in Boyd's season revolves around the change in his release point. Over the course of the season, Boyd's arm slot dropped from a high three-quarters slot into almost a sidearm motion with the fastball. While his release point dropped with all of his pitches, the change was more pronounced with the fastball. For a time, it got his arm slot nicely in line with the changeup, likely creating better deception on both pitches.
However, as his arm slot dropped lower, things probably went too far. The overall inconsistency, and the growing separation between his fastball and changeup release points coincides with a pair of brutal outings against the Minnesota Twins and Kansas City Royals in September. Not long afterward, Boyd was reported to be dealing with some shoulder discomfort.
The adjustment to his delivery came at the suggestion of Tigers' pitching coach, Rich Dubee. As Anthony Fenech of the Detroit Free Press reported, Dubee encouraged Boyd to move toward the lower arm slot in mid-August. The hope was that Boyd would find better velocity and presumably greater arm-side run on his fastball. The velocity gains were iffy, but he did add more horizontal movement in the process.
However, it may also have led to both his fastball and changeup becoming more recognizable out of his hand. Let's take a look.
See the difference? It's only a few inches, as the release point on all his pitches have dropped. But there's a noticeable gap between the fastball and the changeup. The higher arm slot we've typically seen from Boyd is only evident with the changeup. The fastball is slung out of a low three-quarters slot. If you can see it here, you can bet hitters will start to lock in on it. A strong tell like that can be dangerous when facing major league hitters.
It's certainly possible that the overall adjustments are positive ones for Boyd long-term. Perhaps he'll benefit in terms of velocity and stamina. His delivery has always been a fairly long and high-effort endeavor. Back in the spring, Boyd was working on tightening things up a bit, and the lower arm slot may be a key part of that. You also have to wonder if the mechanical changes played a role in the shoulder fatigue Boyd experienced down the stretch. Boyd threw 172 innings across all levels in 2015. In 2016, he managed just 161 1/3 innings. His decline late in the season presumably wasn't a result of a jump in workload. His velocity held up well, but it's certainly possible that the lower arm slot on his fastball was partly a result of fatigue.
Something similar happened down the stretch last season, as well. Boyd seemed to fade and his delivery became inconsistent. He got hit hard The pairing of fatigue, with increasingly erratic release points as both seasons have progressed, continues to raise some questions about Boyd's ability to be consistent throughout a long major league season.
Still, Boyd has progressed as a pitcher and again threw a reasonably strong slate of innings. Heading into his age-26 season, he's a guy who still appears to be improving as he enters his prime years. Perhaps gained experience in how to prepare himself in the offseason will pay further dividends and help Boyd find another level. Changing to a lower arm slot may turn out to be a net positive if he's able to groove it next season, whether or not there was some initial discomfort from the change. The next step for him is to pitch something closer to a full slate of innings in the major leagues, while maintaining his effectiveness throughout the season. The trajectory of his progress continues to indicate that he will.