The up and down nature of Matthew Boyd’s career could seem like a permanent fixture at this point, six years since his 2015 debut. From the afterthought in the Detroit Tigers’ 2015 deadline trade haul, to a solid, if blowup prone, starting pitcher who made 88 starts from 2017-2019, Boyd was never projected to be a frontline starter. And yet he’s flirted with a higher tier of success on multiple occasions, and then collapsed back to Earth, as he did after his hot start in 2019.
The move that kick started Boyd’s volatility over the past three seasons was the major jump in strikeout rate from late 2018 through the 2019 season. The issue that sank his numbers from June 2019 through 2020 was a skyrocketing HR/9 rate. The strikeout numbers returned to something closer to his career averages in 2020. The home run rate, however, remained extremely high, mainly as the result of right-handed hitters teeing off on him. The big improvement thus far is the reduction in home runs, so let’s focus there.
Controlling power by getting ahead
New manager A.J. Hinch and pitching coach Chris Fetter have made a mantra out of “winning the race to two strikes” since they were hired. Obviously there’s good reason for this. Outcomes change radically depending on whether the pitcher or the hitter is ahead in the count early on.
In 0-1 counts so far this year, hitters are producing a .359 wOBA leaguewide. In 1-2 counts? A .177 wOBA. In 0-2 counts? .159 wOBA.
On the other hand, in 1-0 counts, hitters are putting up a .387 wOBA. In 2-1 counts it’s a similar story with a .379 wOBA in those plate appearances. In 2-0 counts? That number jumps to .406.
So getting ahead first pitch matters, but even more, the question of getting to two balls or two strikes first in a given count really shows a massive divergence in results. Boyd has clearly taken this to heart, throwing 73.1 percent first pitch strikes this season. Among qualified starters, only the LA Dodgers’ Julio Urias has a higher first pitch strike percentage. As long as Boyd can do this without getting ambushed constantly, it puts him in the driver’s seat in most at-bats.
First Pitch Mix
Of course part of Boyd’s specific home run problem has been getting ambushed first pitch. In 2019-2020, Boyd allowed a horrific .452 wOBA on the first pitch. Hitters from either side, but particularly right-handers, have teed off on him in this regard.
Look at one of the ways he’s tried to deal with it this year. He’s throwing substantially less fastballs first pitch, and mixing in the changeup and even the curveball more often. First is his pitch mix in 0-0 counts from 2019-2020. Below is his first pitch usage in 2021.
Results have been much improved, as hitters have posted just a .170 wOBA in 0-0 counts against Boyd this season. The expected wOBA, based on contact, is .275 so there is regression inbound, but that’s still far better than in 2019-2020.
Boyd’s slider has been a real weapon for him the past few seasons, but even that pitch has been tattooed early in counts at times as he was simply too predictably fastball-slider, and neither pitch is much better than league average in terms of velo, movement, and deception. Adding in heavy doses of the changeup has really produced the wrinkle Boyd needed to keep hitters guessing. And he’s followed the same script once he has them down 0-1, mixing all four pitches in, while being careful to stay around the edges, particularly with the fastball.
While many pitchers are getting away with leaning heavily on their two best pitches these days, that works mainly for guys with a pair of dominant outings. For a pitcher like Boyd without a true plus offering, greater diversity was required, and it appears to be paying off. The fact that the changeup is a good pitch in isolation certainly helped make this work.
Avoiding the meatball
Another element to this home run suppression has been Boyd’s ability to throw that high ratio of strikes without grooving many pitches, particularly fastballs, down the middle. Boyd has actually added some horizontal movement to his fastball this year, but the vertical movement remains two inches worse than league average. Despite his propensity for using the fastball at the top of the zone, it remains a pitch that doesn’t miss many bats over the heart of the plate, but the added horizontal movement has helped Boyd avoid the barrel more often.
Here is Boyd’s fastball heat map from 2019-2020.
Look how he’s avoided middle-middle so far in 2021.
Boyd is clearly not going to suppress home runs to the outrageous rate he’s managed so far. Going from a 1.89 HR/9 in 2019, to 2.24 HR/9 in 2020, to 0.34 HR/9 is not fully sustainable. However, there are certainly several good reasons why he’s avoided damage to a much better degree this season and may continue to do so.
By using all three primary pitches early in counts and coupling that with aggressive strike throwing, Boyd has been able to get out ahead of most hitters. He’s not putting them away with the fastball-slider combination to the degree he did in 2019, but what he’s sacrificed in strikeouts, he’s gained in more weak contact in the air and shorter plate appearances allowing him to pitch deeper into games.
Strikeouts have become the Holy Grail of pitching over the last decade, but one still has to pitch to one’s strengths. Boyd has worked his tail off to develop his pitches and produce the optimal combination of velocity and movement. There just may not be much left on the bone in that regard. Recognizing that he’s just never going to have elite individual offerings, and instead game planning around using his whole repertoire to keep hitters off balance and guessing has produced a really good nine start performance in the early going.
For a brief period of time in 2019, Boyd looked to have developed two high end offerings by tuning up his fastball and slider. But as it played out, once hitters were familiar with him again after the changes, he was simply too predictable, without the raw stuff to get away with it. He seems to have accepted that this season, and with the help of one of Fetter’s specialties, game planning for opponents, has found new wrinkles to his game by using his changeup far more aggressively, and trusting the change of speeds more than the raw movement on the fastball and slider to carry him through.
You can expect him to start allowing more homers, and we certainly don’t expect him among the American League’s top starters this season. However, the complete collapse we saw after his hot 2019 start may also be off the table. Through some combination of the changes to the baseball, Boyd’s improved pitch mix, and his command in not throwing many meatballs middle-middle, we may have a sustainable version of Matthew Boyd that allows him to capitalize on his strengths as a durable, solid mid-rotation starter with good enough command to throw three pitches for strikes without making many egregious mistakes.
Let’s hope he can keep it going Thursday against Cleveland.