Lakeland, Fla. – Manager Brad Ausmus was asked early Friday if there was one pitch from any pitcher that has impressed him in terms of showing improvement from a year ago.
Without hesitation, he said, “Matt Boyd’s slider. It’s shorter and firmer and harder.”
Catcher James McCann seconded that.
“It’s a pitch he didn’t have last year,” he said. “The way it looks right now, it has a chance to be a very good put-away pitch. It’s tighter, sharper and he has better control of it. He hasn’t reinvented the wheel or anything, but it’s a new pitch for him.”
Boyd shrugged his shoulders.
“That’s nice but it matters when you start throwing it April 3, or whenever,” he said. “That’s when it really counts. This is all building up to that.”
Boyd came to the Tigers from Toronto with Daniel Norris in the David Price trade last July and he took his lumps in 10 late-season starts. He went 1-4 with a 6.57 ERA and 1.48 WHIP. He gave up 12 home runs in those 10 starts.
And he wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.
“It was extremely beneficial,” said the 25-year-old left-hander. “I firmly believe that, you know, I’ve seen it once and now I know what to expect…I look at it for what it was. This is what I have to work on; I was deficient in these areas and if I don’t evolve I am going to be done.”
The evolution starts with his slider, though it was far from his worst pitch last season. According to BrooksBaseball.com, opponents hit just .158 off his slider, though the line drive rate on balls in play was high (21 percent).
The problem was, his slider became too much like his curve ball – a slow (80 mph) pitch with a 12-to-6 break.
“The slider has always been a weapon for me, but as the season went on I just lost the feel for it and it started turning into a slurve,” he said. “Really, down the stretch there was only one game where I threw it well.”
His first start with the Tigers was a gem, a seven-inning victory over the Royals. In that one he kept the Royals hitters off balance with the slower slider. His second start was also against the Royals, and though he wound up losing, he pitched well and punched out six hitters with the tighter slider.
Unable to maintain consistency with the pitch, he began consulting with former pitching coach Jeff Jones and veteran left-hander Randy Wolf and formulating plans to refashion the pitch in the offseason.
“It’s just really hard to make a change on the fly during the season,” Boyd said. “It took a few months of not picking up a baseball and not thinking about it and starting new. I knew what I wanted to do.
“Jonesy told me I was going to learn more and more from the season and sure enough, when I started spinning sliders in January, I had an idea what I wanted to do. It was a clean slate. ”
He altered his grip, slightly changed his release point and, voila, the slider was boring in at 87-88 mph with tighter spin and a sharper break.
“It was just a matter of repeating it and getting consistent with it,” he said. “Just pound it, work it. I feel real comfortable with it now.”
As he competes to win the fifth spot in the rotation, he now feels like has a legitimate five-pitch arsenal.
“I have a changeup and curve that go straight down,” he said. “I have a four-seamer (fastball) that kind of rises. I have a two-seamer that goes left and a slider that goes right so I feel like I can work everything off those.”
The battle for the fifth spot essentially is between Norris, Boyd, Shane Greene and Buck Farmer at this point. There is added intrigue with Anibal Sanchez’s triceps inflammation, though Ausmus reiterated he expects Sanchez to be ready.
“I think however it shakes out, with the seven or eight guys we are going to have one of the best rotations in baseball,” Boyd said. “Competition breeds success. We’re all friends and we’re all working toward the ultimate goal of bringing a title to Detroit.”
Boyd will make his first spring start Tuesday against the Pirates at Marchant Stadium.