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McCosky: What's wrong with Tigers' Matthew Boyd? Maybe not as much as you'd think

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Pittsburgh – Hearing this comment a lot regarding Matthew Boyd: “This is who he is, why are you surprised?”

I don’t accept that. To accept that Boyd is the pitcher we’ve seen through his first three starts – his 23 hits and 15 runs allowed are the most in baseball — is to conveniently forget what we saw with our own eyes last season.

Yes, he faded late in the season. Yes, he gave up 39 home runs (news flash, the ball was juiced). But he also struck out 238 hitters. His slider was among the nastiest in baseball with a 44 percent whiff rate and a .189 opponent average.

Matthew Boyd

Over his first 14 starts last season, he had a 105-15 strikeout-walk rate. Opponents hit .227 and slugged .377 against him. That’s the pitcher Boyd is capable of being. That’s the pitcher manager Ron Gardenhire, pitching coach Rick Anderson and Boyd himself expect him to be.

“I’m not a panicky type of guy,” Gardenhire said. “He’s our No. 1 pitcher, that’s why I left him out there. I still believe in this guy a whole lot. He can pitch. He’s just having a tough stretch right now.”

Boyd’s first three starts have raised some red-flags, of course. The velocity on his four-seam fastball is down, just a tick — to 91-92 mph from what was 93-94 most of last season. It’s not a lot, but it’s enough to where the fastball up in the zone that was getting by hitters last year has been hit more frequently this year.

The swing-and-miss rate on the four-seamer is down from 24 percent to 15 percent this year, and the opponent average is up to .281 from .269.

More: 'We came out swinging': Tigers blast 4 HRs in 5-run first to plaster Pirates 11-5

That’s the pitch that he used to get hitters off his slider, particularly with two strikes. He hasn’t had that capability consistently yet this year, so hitters are better able to lay off the two-strike slider or make Boyd put it over the plate.

The three-run home run he gave up to Phillip Evans with two outs in the fifth inning Friday was a perfect example of that. He got two swing-and-misses with sliders, then Evans spit on a third one in the dirt. He fouled off a high fastball and then pole-axed a flat slider over the middle of the plate.

"I just want a few pitches back," Boyd said after the game.

Boyd’s slider hasn’t had the same shape or movement it had last year, which is the second red-flag. He threw some sharp ones Friday, but there were many that either flattened out or were too loopy out of his hand.

He spent a lot of time in the off-season and through spring and summer camp working to get his curve ball back in working order. I asked him if he thought his emphasis on the curve ball had caused him to lose the shape of his slider — if the two pitches have melded together somewhat.

“I don’t think so,” Boyd said. “Look at that at-bat against Phillip Evans. The two sliders he swung and missed at, they were 79-80 mph — it’ll tell you all you need to know. It’s right there, right where it should be. I punched him out with it before in the previous at-bat.

“I just missed a pitch. We’re three starts in, there’s still a lot of baseball to be played. It’s no excuse for anything but we are only three starts into this thing.”

Boyd admitted that he hadn’t battled this kind of inconsistency with his slider — especially overthrowing it in big situations — since much earlier in his career. But, again, there are statistics that show things aren’t as bad as they may seem.

For starters, the average exit velocity on balls put in play against him is just 88.5 mph — that’s softer contact than he gave up on average last season. Of 51 balls put in play, only three have been recorded by Statcast as barrels (exit velocity above 95 mph).

Opponents’ average on balls in play is .417, a number that will drop considerably.

“Unfortunately, things haven’t gone as planned here so far,” Boyd said. “But you know what, we won ballgames in those starts, too. That’s what counts. I’m going to get better, I know that. This is going to make me better.

“It’s part of the story and it’s going to be pretty cool when we’re all on top of this.”

Maybe there isn’t a Cy Young Award in Matthew Boyd’s immediate future. But I can’t accept that the pitcher we’ve seen in three starts is the pitcher he’s going to be going forward. And more importantly, neither can Boyd.

Around the horn 

The 17 runs the Tigers scored Friday were the most since 2017, when they scored 19 against the Mariners. They also batted around twice, in the fifth and seventh innings. According to Elias Sports Bureau, they hadn’t done that since 2014.

… Niko Goodrum, who hadn’t gotten a hit in five straight games, had a pair of doubles and knocked in five runs Friday night. Again according to Elias, Goodrum was the first Tigers’ leadoff hitter to drive in five runs since Ian Kinsler did it in 2016.

… The Tigers offered the following injury updates Saturday: RHP Dario Agrazal (forearm strain) was scheduled to throw a bullpen in Toledo Saturday; outfielder Cameron Maybin (quad) was cleared to do some field work, including running sprints; RHP Jordan Zimmermann (forearm) has begun long-tossing and is expected to begin a bullpen regimen soon.  

Twitter @cmccosky