Home run balls just the latest hurdle in the journey of Tigers' ace Matthew Boyd
Detroit — Matthew Boyd never once mentioned that perhaps, just maybe, the reason he allowed more home runs than all but one pitcher last season was the baseball was juiced.
He didn’t mention that the 39 hit off him were only a tiny piece of the major league-record 6,776 homers hit last year — shattering the previous mark by 671. Or that nearly a quarter of the home runs he allowed came in five starts against the first two teams in history to slug more than 300 in a season — the Minnesota Twins and New York Yankees. Or that 24 teams slugged more than 200 home runs and 14 of those set franchise home-run records.
No. When Boyd was asked this week about this seemingly anomalistic blemish on his season, just before the Tigers headed out on their winter bus trip through the city and state, he skillfully dodged that excuse by saying, “I look at it from the aspect of what I can control.”
And what he said he could control was the selection and the execution of his pitches.
“There were a handful of home runs where I threw the pitch I wanted to throw, and it was probably the right pitch, and the guy hit it out,” he said. “Hats off to him. There were a handful that were the right pitch, but I didn’t execute it in the right spot.
“Then there's a handful where you go, ‘I threw that pitch, but I probably should’ve thrown a different one.’ Maybe you see that in retrospect.”
Understand, before we go much further with this, that what we are doing here, focusing on one negative aspect of a 32-start season, is anathematic for Boyd. Just like his career-best 238 strikeouts, the most by a Tigers’ lefty since Mickey Lolich, or his sublime 4.76 strikeout-to-walk rate (11.6 K's per nine innings, to 2.4 walks) don’t fully define his 2019 season — nor do the home-run balls.
Boyd’s approach is far more holistic.
“I just continue to refine my game,” he said. “Throughout the year you are always looking — where am I deficient, how can I get better? Sometimes you make adjustments in the season but sometimes you can use the benefit of five months where you are not pitching competitively.
“It’s every aspect. Doing things different in eating, doing different things recovery-wise. It’s all designed to be the best I can be today.”
The heart of the matter
Still, Boyd is a pragmatist. And his will to be elite and be the true ace of the Tigers’ staff is fierce.
So, without a doubt, he sat back at some point this off-season — between his dietary cleanse and new-age workouts, his trip to Uganda and the Kingdom House that he and wife Ashley have set up to save kids from the sex trade, his accepting the Michiganian of the Year award from The Detroit News and spending time with his growing family — and deep-dived into possible cause-and-effects for all the home runs.
He probably found most of it fluky or irrelevant. Like giving up 26 bombs at spacious Comerica Park as opposed to 13 on the road. Like giving up 15 when he was behind in the count, 17 when the count was even and seven when he was ahead. Like giving up 18 with two outs, 20 with men on and 20 from the fourth through sixth innings.
What probably could be more illuminating, though, is that right-handed hitters slugged 32 of the 39 homers he allowed. Granted, the lefty faced nearly 500 more right-handed hitters than lefties, and he limited them to a .250 average, but that’s the widest discrepancy in home-run splits in his career.
Also, 25 of the 39 home runs were hit off his four-seam fastball, 22 by right-handed hitters.
Match that to his pitch usage and there’s perhaps an a-ha! Boyd threw his four-seamer more than he ever has in his career — 50 percent. He also threw his slider more than ever before, 36 percent. He became, in effect, a two-pitch pitcher.
You get why, though. His fastball was hitting 92-93 mph and he was spotting it up in the zone, which rendered the darting slider virtually unhittable for half a season. All told, Boyd got swings and misses with 43 percent of his sliders, with opponents hitting just .192 against it.
But the hitters adjusted, laying off the slider more and attacking the fastball. Perhaps, too, as the season wore on, Boyd’s arm got weary, his command was less precise and his pitches lost some crispness, especially in August when he was tagged for 14 home runs.
Boyd gave up 19 home runs in 18 starts before the All-Star break. He gave up 20, in 30 fewer innings, in his last 14 starts.
A lesson was learned. As Boyd said after he made his final start of the season, “I need to be a four-pitch pitcher.” And he spent considerable time trying to refine his change-up (which was a good pitch for him last year when he used it) and curveball (which remains a work in progress).
“We need to shift the perspective a little bit and think of it like, I have four pitches,” he said. “All are of good quality and I can use them. What if I use them? If I can be a four-pitch pitcher, if I continue to be better, what will happen?
“It’s a whole new realm that I’ve put myself in — good and bad ways. It’s all a balancing act, figuring out what works for you and what doesn’t.”
On a path to greatness
This is all one continuous journey for Boyd, and the home-run ball is just another hurdle he needs to clear on his path to greatness.
In 2017, he worked to simplify his mechanics so he could better repeat his delivery and sharpen his command. In 2018 he got better at preparing scouting reports, using data and reading swings and making adjustments on the fly in games.
Last year, pitching coach Rick Anderson convinced him to trust and pitch off his fastball, which he did expertly in the first half of the season. Now, he needs to revise and mix up his strategies, particularly against right-handed hitters.
And he knows more hurdles are coming.
“I am going to make changes,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to give up home runs. All I’m going to do is try to put myself in a better position to have success. I just need to know that what I do control and what I do promise myself out there, I can do that even better.”
Boyd and the Tigers avoided arbitration earlier this month, agreeing to a one-year, $5.3-million contract. He’s under team control through 2022. There have been organizational discussions about offering him a multi-year extension, but so far, there have been no formal negotiations.
Which Boyd puts in the same category as juiced baseballs, Houston Astros sign-stealing escapades and trade rumors — Things I Can’t Control.
“We haven’t talked about an extension, but that would be cool,” he said. “I’m so grateful to wear the Olde English D. I want to win a championship here. We all want to win a championship here.”