Matt Boyd has been something of the third wheel this spring. As the Detroit Tigers try to fill the fifth spot in their starting rotation, it's Daniel Norris who has the high-end pedigree and the inside track to fill that role. Meanwhile, Shane Greene has looked much improved from the injury plagued version Tigers' fans were so disappointed by in 2015. Yet Boyd is making it clear to the Tigers that he's not going to lay down for anyone.
So far this spring, Boyd boasts a 3.29 ERA in 13-2/3 innings pitched. Certainly these are just spring training stats. They shouldn't be taken as particularly meaningful as pitchers and hitters work on their craft in games that count for nothing. What does stand out however, are Boyd's 13 strikeouts to just 12 hits. Whatever adjustments players are making to their game in mid-March, no hitter is happy to go down on strikes.
Improving Boyd's slider
Friday, against a lineup of St. Louis Cardinals' regulars, Boyd put together one of the best outings of the spring by any Tigers' starter. Boyd spun five scoreless innings of two-hit ball, striking out seven. It's those strikeouts that were the most tantalizing bit of his performance. They featured Boyd's ongoing development with both his delivery and his slider. Developments that could lead to another big step forward for Boyd in 2016.
It's a good sign for Boyd that you see hitters such as Matt Carpenter, Brandon Moss, and Kolten Wong all flailing at Boyd's slider in two-strike counts. It's a pitch that Boyd worked diligently to improve this offseason, altering his grip and trying to throw with greater velocity and bite. Asked early this spring what had stood out from his pitching staff, manager Brad Ausmus mentioned just one thing: "Matt Boyd's slider."
One of the peculiar facets of Boyd's repertoire is that not one of his secondary pitches averaged even 80 mph last season. His slider and changeup checked in at 78 and 79 mph respectively, and were backed by a slow curve averaging just 71 mph. It's not common to find a starter with a low-90s fastball, who doesn't have a single pitch in the mid-80s. While a broad separation in speed between a pitcher's fastball and secondary pitches is generally a good thing, in Boyd's case it may have gone too far. For a hitter facing him, it was either a fastball, or guaranteed to be a comparatively slow breaking ball they could wait on. Getting the slider velocity up to where it's separated from Boyd's changeup could make him tougher to anticipate and time for hitters.
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In addition, the slider he was throwing last season had little true bend to it at all. It was essentially a very low spin pitch that relied almost entirely on gravity for its movement. As illustrated, it moved, on average, less than an inch either way off its natural path. As a result, it functioned mainly as a groundball pitch, almost a slow sinkerball, generating only an 11.6 percent swinging strike rate. Compared to Daniel Norris' 14.6 percent swinging strike rate with his slider, or Justin Verlander's 16.7 percent mark, it simply wasn't a particularly effective putaway pitch for Boyd.
A harder, higher spin version of the slider should give it a more traditional mixture of cutting and sinking action, moving away and down from a left-handed hitter, distinguishing it from the 12-to-6 movement of his curveball and changeup. Judging by the examples in his start on Friday, he's made at least some progress in that regard.
Refining his delivery
Still, the real crux of Boyd's future success is going to depend on repeating his delivery more consistently. It's impossible to locate pitches otherwise. As BYB editor Rob Rogacki pointed out in this article last September, Boyd's release points, particularly with his fastball, were all over the place, varying from start to start. His command was poor as a result, and despite good velocity and movement, his fastball was hammered by opposing hitters for an OPS well over 1.000. His changeup, which also tails substantially, was likewise hammered far too often. The Tigers' new pitching coach, Rich Dubee, is working with Boyd on simplifying his mechanics this spring to help him deliver the ball from a much more consistent arm slot.
Last season we saw Boyd often tilting back too much in his windup and struggling to return to a position in which he could release the ball on a downward angle. As a result he hung a lot of changeups and put too many fastballs belt high over the plate. One noticeable difference so far this spring is that he's toned down the extremely high leg kick he used previously.
In the video from Friday's outing, you can see that he's bringing his leg only to the point where his thigh is perpendicular to the ground. This should be an easier timing mechanism to build into muscle memory, and avoids him getting his weight too far back as he separates his hands. Particularly with the slider, getting to a higher release point closer to his curveball's, should help him throw the pitch downward, with more bite. In his start on Friday against the Cardinals, he did just that, looking quite a bit like former Tiger, Drew Smyly, in fact.
Boyd's numbers last season weren't pretty, but it's also clear that he's better than he showed. After quite a rough introduction to the major leagues with the Blue Jays, he settled in a little more in Detroit and was at least serviceable at times. Armed with a very high spin fastball that generates a lot of routine flyballs if located well, Comerica Park should be a good fit for him. And if he can continue to refine his slider, that combination could allow him to take a big leap forward should the Tigers call on him this season.
Boyd is still likely to start the year with the Toledo Mud Hens, but with neither Norris nor Greene seizing the reins as of yet, the fifth starter competition isn't quite a done deal. And wherever Boyd starts the season, his presence provides depth the Tigers have sorely lacked in recent seasons. If he's successful in dialing in the changes he and Dubee are working on, there's little doubt that his chance to make an impact will come.