Tigers ever-evolving ace Matthew Boyd landing on feet after tumultuous stretch

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Tigers pitcher Matthew Boyd ranks fifth in the American League with 234 strikeouts.

Detroit — Pitching is not a linear endeavor. The arc of a pitcher’s season is not linear.

Matthew Boyd will tell you this, repeatedly, until it’s understood. Things do not progress in a straight line — not in a career, not in a season and not in a game.

One minute you are among the league leaders in strikeouts, opponents are hitting just .227 against you and there’s talk of being selected to the All-Star team. Then you look up 2½ months later and you’ve allowed 39 home runs, you lead the majors with four balks and over your last 17 starts, your ERA is just under 6.00 and opponents are hitting .259 against you.

But even that wasn’t a linear descent. Within those last 17 starts, Boyd went back home to Seattle and struck out 10 in 6.1 innings. He limited a dangerous Texas lineup to two runs and struck out nine in Arlington and in Tampa, he gave up just two hits and a run with nine strikeouts in seven innings.

The evolution is constant.

“He’s a battler, he’s game-on,” manager Ron Gardenhire said after Boyd labored through a 101-pitch, five-inning win Sunday. “He’s got one more start to finish up, but you know what, I consider it a good season for him, even though his record doesn’t look that good.

“He’s made a name for himself.”  

It’s been fascinating to watch the arc of Boyd’s season. It revealed some stubbornness on his part that hadn’t been seen before. Through 2017, Boyd prided himself on being able to throw five pitches in any count to any batter — four-seam fastball, two-seam sinker, slider, change-up, curveball.

The last two years, though — and especially this year — Boyd has pared his arsenal to two pitches, four-seamer and slider. But on Sunday, after much pleading from pitching coach Rick Anderson and catchers Grayson Greiner and Jake Rogers, he finally dusted off his change-up.

“He’s got a really good change-up,” Greiner said. “And with nine right-handed hitters in the (White Sox) lineup today, it made sense to mix that in more than usual. It’s really a good pitch for him.”

That’s the thing, it always was a good pitch for Boyd. In 2017 he threw the change-up 21 percent of the time and got misses on 32 percent of the swings. It was his primary antidote against right-handed hitters. But he threw it just 8 percent of the time last year and has used it 6 percent of the time this season.

The reason? His slider went from good to elite.

“I wouldn’t say I was leery of using the change-up,” Boyd said. “I just fell in love with the slider and it’s been really successful all year. It was to the point where, you know, why change something that’s working?”

No debate there. Opponents are hitting a paltry .188 against his slider. He has a 42 percent strikeout rate and a 43 percent whiff rate with the pitch, per Statcast.

But, here's what happens: The more you throw the same two pitches, the more hitters can eliminate your other pitches from consideration during an at-bat. Consequently, the odds of them getting one of the two pitches they may be sitting on become 50-50.

Doesn’t leave much margin for error. And as the home run total indicates, hitters haven’t missed many of Boyd’s mistakes this season.  

The opponent average against his fastball has jumped from .215 last year to .271 this year. Thirty-two of the 39 home runs against him have come off the fastball, 22 of those by right-handed hitters.

He’s given up eight home runs with the slider, seven of those by right-handed hitters and seven coming in his last 14 starts — including the two-run homer Eloy Jimenez hit off him in the first inning Sunday.

With Greiner’s persistence, though, Boyd went back to his change-up. He threw 13 of them Sunday and got four swings and misses. The two balls that were put in play were outs, with an average exit velocity of just 78 mph.

“I am a four-pitcher,” Boyd said, eliminating the sinker. “I’ve got to use all four pitches.”

Gardenhire is correct. Boyd did make a name for himself this season. He will come into spring training as the ace of the Tigers staff and one of the unquestioned leaders of the team — barring an offseason trade, of course.  

And he’s not talking like a player who expects to be elsewhere next year.

“It’s really important that we all understand that what we do now, as it’s been for the last few months, sets the tone going forward into next year,” he said. “Next year isn’t a foregone conclusion for where we’re going to be in the standings or for who is going to be on the roster. Everything is up for grabs.

“That’s all going to take care of itself when the time comes. But it’s important to set the tone and understand that how we fight now, all the things Gardy has instilled in us this year, sets the tone for next year.”

Boyd refashioned his body last offseason. He hired a health and performance coach, did DNA-based testing and designed a diet and workout program that shredded 15 pounds off his already lean frame, but added strength and endurance that’s enabled him, with one start left, to make a 31 starts and throw a career-high 181 innings.

The velocity on his fastball climbed from 90 to 92 mph on average this season. His 3.7 WAR is the highest of any Tigers player this season. He’s among the American League leaders in strikeouts (fifth, 234), strikeouts per nine innings (fourth, 11.6); strikeouts-to-walks (fourth, 4.77) and WHIP (1.219).

Can’t wait to see what part of his game he attacks this offseason.  

On deck: Twins 

Series: Three-game series at Comerica Park, Detroit

First pitch: 6:40 p.m. Tuesday-Wednesday; 1:10 p.m. Thursday

TV/radio: All games on Fox Sports Detroit/97.1 FM

Probables: Tuesday — RHP Jake Odorizzi (14-7, 3.59) vs. RHP Spencer Turnbull (3-15, 4.66); Wednesday — TBA vs. LHP Daniel Norris (3-13, 4.58); Thursday — TBA vs. RHP Jordan Zimmermann (1-12, 6.85).

Scouting report

Odorizzi, Twins: He’s already beaten the Tigers twice times this season, allowing four runs with 20 strikeouts in 18 innings. He’s allowed three earned runs or less in nine straight starts.

Turnbull, Tigers: He seems to have righted the ship. In his last two starts, he struck eight against both the Yankees and Indians with one walk combined — becoming the first Tigers rookie to do that since Les Cain in 1970.


Twitter: @cmccosky