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'Bad habits' continue to haunt Tigers' Matthew Boyd as White Sox take series

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Detroit – The image of Matthew Boyd dejectedly handing the ball to manager Ron Gardenhire and walking head-down off the field is becoming disturbingly common already this season.

"We have to get this thing cleaned up," Gardenhire said Wednesday after Boyd was tagged for four runs in a fatal fifth inning in a 7-5 loss to the White Sox. "He's one of our guys, one of the best we have on our staff and he's not living up to that right now.

"I think he will, just have to get it straightened out."

There were positive moments, for sure, but in the end, Boyd, the Tigers’ ace, has an ERA over 10 after four starts.

Matthew Boyd walks around the mound while Chicago's Eloy Jimenez rounds the bases on his solo home run in the first inning.

"All in all, I need to be better," Boyd said. "All the inconsistencies, they usually center around me trying to overthrow right now. ... I'm going to keep working, trying to get rid of some of these habits that I've developed."

More on those bad habits in a minute. First, let's recap:

Boyd gave up back-to-back home runs to start the game -- losing a 10-pitch at-bat to Tim Anderson, who crushed a hanging slider, and giving up an opposite-field home run to Eloy Jimenez on an 0-2 fastball.

But the Tigers got him back in the game. 

BOX SCORE: White Sox 7, Tigers 5

Jonathan Schoop got one run back, hitting a 98-mph fastball from White Sox starter Dylan Cease 433 feet into the shrubs in center field.

Then the Tigers got a break in the fourth. After Jeimer Candelario doubled with one out, Cease and catcher James McCann got crossed up on a two-strike pitch to Victor Reyes. McCann was clearly expecting an off-speed pitch down and instead Cease threw another 97-mph fastball.

McCann nearly got beaned with it, ducking out of the way at the last instant. Reyes swung and missed but reached first on what was scored a passed ball.

With two outs, Tigers catcher Grayson Greiner, who had been hitless in his first 11 at-bats, shot a two-run double into the gap in right-center to tie the game. Willi Castro, making his 2020 debut with three hits on the day, followed with a line-drive home run into the seats in right.

"The team gave us a chance to win today," Boyd said. "I didn't do my job."

Another fifth-inning exit

Boyd appeared to have settled in. Other than Anderson -- who had three of his four hits off Boyd including a leadoff triple in the third -- the White Sox had but two other hits off Boyd entering the fifth.

"I stayed on my fastball better today, I stayed on my slider better," Boyd said. "But I'm still making mistakes with it. ... But in the fifth I started to fall behind hitters more consistently."

Matthew Boyd

Anderson led off the fifth with a single and with one out, Jose Abreu walked. Boyd was dealt a bit of misfortune against Juan Encarnacion. He froze him with a 2-2 fastball. Replays showed it to be a strike, but home plate umpire Tripp Gibson didn’t give it to him.

On the next pitch, Encarnacion rolled a slow ground ball that shortstop Niko Goodrum had no play on. Anderson was running on the play from second base and Willi Castro, new to the position, broke for third, though the Tigers were surrendering that base in that situation.

It ended up being a moot point. Boyd got McCann to line out to Goodrum for the second out but rookie Luis Robert hit a first-pitch slider into the triangle in right-center – a two-run double. Left-handed hitting Nomar Mazara followed with another double and Boyd’s day was done.

"I thought the pitch to Robert was a pretty good slider," Boyd said. "He hit it. He hit my pitch. But I'd like to not be in a position there where I didn't let those guys get on there and I don't have to pitch to Robert with no place to put him and a lefty on-deck."

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Still, there were bigger issues for Boyd. Four of the five balls the White Sox put in play against him in the fifth, including McCann’s scorcher, had exit velocities of 104 mph or better.

Boyd threw 21 sliders total and got just four misses on 12 swings. That pitch had a 44-percent whiff rate last season. The sliders the White Sox put in play were well-struck – a 96-mph average exit velocity. The White Sox punished his four-seam fastball, too – 97-mph exit velocity.

"The slider is tilting sideways and going across the zone," Gardenhire said. "At times it comes out really good, really bites toward the ground. But when he gets underneath it, it's like a flying saucer and that's when they whack him."

Exorcising bad habits 

In four starts now, Boyd has given up 22 runs and 30 hits in 19.1 innings. What gives? Is it physical? Is he dealing with a tired arm? Is it all mechanical? Boyd knows exactly what the problem is, it's just taking him longer than he wants to get back to where he was during the first spring training.

"My body is fine," he said. "Over the month or so leading into summer camp I developed some bad habits. It had nothing to do with lack of work or over-exertion. There were some metrics that I started chasing a little bit."

Boyd's four-seam fastball had tremendous ride, what analytics refer to as vertical break, through the strike zone, during spring training. And with a couple of months off, Boyd decided to tinker and see if he could even more vertical break.

"It being so good in spring was a product of me staying in my delivery and repeating my delivery and being true to who I was as a pitcher," Boyd said. "The focus starts to shift, to see if I could make that a little better and it took me out of my game.

"And it's not really about the vertical break, it's that I stepped away from what brought me success, which is staying within myself and attacking on every pitch. I got out of my game."

He's actually lost two inches of vertical break on his heater and, double-whammy, he's lost consistency with his money pitch, the slider. Boyd, though, wanted to make sure he was understood -- he's not blaming this using analytics and tools like the Rapsodo machine to try to improve himself. 

"The focus of this shouldn't be on chasing the metrics (meaning higher spin rates)," he said. "That's kind of demonizing things that have made be a better pitcher. It's understanding what I do that brings me success and I got away from that.

"Now, it's re-calibrating and we've been getting better and better."

Boyd said in his attempts to create more spin, he lost his posture. And the trickle-down from that was, his arm slot and release points got skewed. He locks it back in for a few pitches and then he comes out of it for a few pitches. 

"That's my battle right now," he said. "That's what I'm working on. There's not a day when I'm not on a mound working on it. We were better today than we were in Pittsburgh and we were better in Pittsburgh than we were against Kansas City.

"I promise everybody out there, including my team, I will be better. I'm not giving up on anything." 

Twitter @cmccosky