Lakeland, Fla. — Tigers ace Matthew Boyd started his day against the Pirates throwing three straight fastballs. Then, with an 0-2 count, he snapped a curveball that bit at the back foot of right-handed hitting Erik Gonzalez, who already had lunged out at what he thought was another fastball.
In the second inning, again ahead 0-2, he snapped another beauty that locked up John Ryan Murphy. Unfortunately for Boyd, it also locked up plate umpire Joe West, who called it a ball. No worries, though, Boyd ended up getting the strikeout with a change-up.
With a runner at third and nobody out in the third inning, Boyd got ahead of Cole Tucker with a slider and fastball. After another late swing on a fastball (foul ball), he just missed with a change-up, then followed that with curveball. The pitch had look identical to the change-up, except it broke sharply into the strike zone.
All Tucker could do was hope West was fooled again. Which he wasn’t.
Boyd, who will make just two more spring starts before opening day, was in full control of his powers in a 4-1 Grapefruit League win over the Pirates on Tuesday. But if the curveball continues to be the weapon it’s been thus far, it will add another dimension to his game.
"That’s what spring is for, right?" Boyd said. "We go out there and we’re working on these things. We’re working on developing new things. I think that’s the benefit of throwing to Romey right now."
Boyd threw to starting catcher Austin Romine for the first time in a game setting Tuesday.
"I am working on the change-up and the curveball, and they’re coming along and now we have a four-pitch mix to go in there with," Boyd said. "And he says, ‘OK, let’s use them.’
"He’s looking at it with fresh eyes and it’s fun throwing it. We’re breaking it down and using them where he sees fit.”
Boyd went 4.1 innings in 67 pitches Tuesday, allowing a run and three hits. He struck out five and got 10 swings and misses. His fastball, which recorded five straight swing and misses in one stretch, was sitting at 93 mph and got as firm as 94.
With the way he was spotting his curveball, slider and change-up, though, he was getting late swings on fastballs all game.
"Completely," he said. "You are adding a wider range of speed difference. Not to mention, the slider is working on this plane (horizontal) and the curveball is working on this plane (vertical), that really plays especially when I have to go up off that (with the fastball).
"You can diversify the mix a little bit. All you are trying to do is mess up timing. If you mess up timing just a little bit, that’s all you are trying to achieve.”
Boyd used the curveball just four percent of the time and primarily to right-handed hitters last season. Pitching coach Rick Anderson suggested he use it more at the end of last season, but the shape was too similar to his slider — which was his money pitch.
"I didn't want to take away from his bread and butter," Anderson said. "We decided (working in more curveballs) would be a topic for the winter. But I told him, if that is something you want to do, we have to keep the shape different."
Anderson also showed Boyd a heat map which clearly showed how the vast majority of his pitches were working down and in on right-handed hitters. He needed to develop both the curve and the change-up so that he could exploit the holes on the other side of the plate.
"Everything was middle-in," Anderson said. "Slider in, pound the fastball in. He just got one-sided and that's why you saw a lot of those home runs."
Boyd yielded 39 home runs last season, second most in baseball. Thirty-two of those were hit by right-handed batters. With the vertical break on his curve and the fading action on his change-up — which he was throwing in all counts — not to mention his pinpoint control with his four-seam fastball, hitters will have to honor all quadrants of the plate against him this year.
"It's a lot of fun," Boyd said. "That's the awesome part of spring training. It opens your eyes to, 'Oh, I can do that.' Really, all you are doing is trying to put yourself in the best position to have success."