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2017 Tigers player preview: Matt Boyd should scrap his curveball

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Less of his worst pitch could lead to a breakout.

MLB: Spring Training-Detroit Tigers at New York Mets Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The general consensus around the coming season is that the Detroit Tigers don’t have a lot of margin for error in 2017. The starting roster is strong enough to compete with anyone, but their depth may be a fatal weakness. This does not sound unfamiliar. There are only a few players not already on the marquee whom the Tigers can hope to successfully lean on during the season. Starting pitcher Matt Boyd is one of them, and he showed signs last season that he may be up to the task.

It was Boyd who pulled the Tigers’ bacon out of the fire in July and August, after all. As injuries to the pitching staff mounted, the dominance of Boyd backed Justin Verlander and Michael Fulmer, and allowed the Tigers to finally gain traction after the All-Star break. Boyd posted a 2.55 ERA in 49 13 innings of work across that span. He also struck out 22.6 percent of hitters he faced, a rate close to a batter per inning with a solid walk rate to back it up. If he pitched like that all year. he would be a Cy Young winner.

Boyd is a fairly unique pitcher in several respects. For a guy with a fairly ordinary fastball, he threw it a whopping 60 percent of the time last year with decent success. Major league hitters are built to hit fastballs, and while Boyd held his own considering the heavy usage, he gave up a wRC+ of 141 on the pitch. His changeup, however, was outstanding, and the slider wasn’t far behind. But there, skulking in the back, is his slow curve. The curve has gotten pummeled for two years straight, but Boyd actually used it nearly as often as his slider in 2016. Maybe the best thing would be to leave it behind in Lakeland when he comes north in a few weeks.

Matt Boyd 2016 Usage

2016 wRC+ Pitch %
2016 wRC+ Pitch %
FB 141 60.9
CH 70 15.7
SL 75 11.2
CU 129 12.2

You may recall that Boyd’s slider was one of the more remarked on developments last spring. Manager Brad Ausmus praised it as one of the more noticeable improvements anyone on his staff had made. Pitching coach Rich Dubee worked with Boyd on throwing the slider from a slightly higher arm angle, helping him to get on top of it for better depth. He also started throwing it several miles harder, something that worked for quite a few pitchers under Dubee’s eye last year. Not only did Boyd get people to swing and miss a little more often on the slider, but it continued to be his go-to offering to induce a ground ball.

On the other hand, his curveball got knocked around. Hitters whiffed on it just six percent of the time, and it featured an isolated power against (ISO) over 40 points higher than the slider. In terms of slugging percentage, the disparity was nearly 200 points. Boyd gave up far more extra base hits on the curveball. While the slider actually gave up more home runs per fly ball, hitters drilled the curve all over the field with regularity. They rarely swung and missed, and they put the curve in the air far more than any other of Boyd’s pitches.

Four solid pitches are obviously better than three. And it bears keeping in mind that Boyd made huge strides with his changeup in 2016, and a more modest gain with the slider. Perhaps he can do the same with his curve. However, based on the nature of his version, the odds are probably stacked against it.

Boyd throws a notably slow curveball, averaging just 73.7 miles per hour last season. There aren’t so many good slow curves in the game. Clayton Kershaw and Yu Darvish are the first two pitchers that come to mind as having great ones. Adam Wainwright is another practitioner that has had great success over the years. A league average curveball generally checks in around 78 mph. The slow curve can work in the right hands. The issue is that Boyd doesn’t get the kind of spin rate that makes for a successful one.

Boyd gets a little over 2,200 rpms on his curveball. That’s below average. Kershaw is over 2,300 rpm, while Darvish, Kenta Maeda and especially Wainwright are even beyond that. The better slow curves in the game have bite on them that Boyd just doesn’t generate. Everything we know about spin rate thus far suggests that his is unlikely to improve. One of the reason analysts are so interested in the subject is because spin rate seems largely an innate quality with little evidence of pitchers improving it notably.

The result of that slower spin rate is much less depth than Kershaw, Darvish, and the like get on their curveballs. That hurts Boyd’s ability to miss bats. It also makes his version more prone to hanging up in the zone where it can get hammered. In addition, Boyd isn’t the type to blow hitters away above the top of the zone. Pitchers who do that regularly have more success freezing hitters and dropping a curve in for a strike.

Maybe Boyd can change his grip, or just locate the curveball more effectively and turn the pitch into a weapon. Still, the smart move may be to shelve it for the time being. Despite getting to a superb number of two-strike counts in 2016, he struggles to put hitters away. Sticking with his worst pitch in terms of both whiffs, and overall results, doesn’t make a lot of sense. If he focuses on the slider and gains more consistency with the pitch, he may be able to add to his strikeout rate and mix more ground balls into his batted ball profile. If he can, the Tigers may yet have more than a fifth starter in Matt Boyd.