Detroit Tigers’ starting pitcher Matthew Boyd’s recent struggles prompted a dive into the numbers. The verdict was surprising
Matthew Boyd is perplexing as a pitcher. He has excellent makeup, he is a leader, he embraces the technology necessary for many pitchers to succeed in the game, and from all accounts works very hard at his craft. He even passes the eye test; a tall, strong frame with lanky, long arms that help him generate extension.
Beyond the peripheral points, though, Boyd’s numbers are equally as confusing:
It begs the question: how can someone that has so many tools be so bad? His strikeout numbers have always been above average and despite spotty command with his pitches, he has done a good job throughout his major league career at not walking people. A combination of missing bats and limiting free passes generally results in success; but as pointed out by our own Chris Brown, the long ball has been a problem.
It is convenient to write it off as a juiced ball issue, but 39 home runs in 2019 alone was an MLB-worst. But yet, he was also able to produce a 3.6 bWAR that same season. The numbers are nothing short of paradoxical.
In an effort to solve Boyd’s issues, where else to go other than the great Baseball Savant page, which does a great job of providing as much data about a player on a single page as possible. The overview of Boyd was not promising. According to their percentile rankings, his exit velocity, barrels, fastball velocity, fastball spin, strikeout percentage, expected ERA, expected batting average, and expected slugging are all at or below major league average.
Realistically, though, it does not take a Baseball Savant page to let a fan know Boyd has been struggling. The traditional stats are also ugly; a 10.24 ERA with 5 home runs over 19.1 innings and a whopping 30 hits on the season. So far, we have confirmed that his performance has indeed been poor and that fact is not a result of bad luck. Watching the games could have gotten us this distant.
Digging deeper, Boyd’s splits provided some context. Being a left-handed pitcher, I was curious to see how fellow lefties performed against him. The results themselves were not staggeringly different, but there was an interesting note about Boyd’s slider usage to left-handed batters: he throws the pitch more than his fastball against them.
This “pitching backward” philosophy is typically done with more crafty pitchers than Boyd, but the results have been positive. His slider is thrown 38.6 percent of the time against left-handed hitters and opponents are hitting a flat .000 against the pitch. Small sample size disclaimers certainly apply, but for someone that has struggled so mightily, finding such a silver lining with one pitch against a certain type of hitter is notable.
Looking at the slider against right-handed batters is a completely different story. Righty opponents are hitting .500 off his slider this year; a pitch he throws 29.8 percent of the time to them. They do not just hit it; they do damage too. Of the five hits, three have gone for at least a triple. Amazingly, he has a whiff percentage of 40 percent with the pitch; which suggests the sharp ones get swings and misses, and the poorly-located sliders get absolutely punished. Such extra-base thump begins to teach why he has given up runs in bunches over his first four starts.
In 2019, right-handed hitters hit just .183 on the slider, so Boyd certainly knows how to get hitters out with the pitch. The only difference with the pitch year-over-year is the horizontal movement, which is nearly two inches less than it was last season. A two-inch horizontal movement reduction may not seem like much, but when figuring the horizontal movement was already well below major league average, another reduction in movement becomes all the more painful. Additionally, take into account the sweet spot of a bat is only five to seven inches, this may very well be the difference between a home run and a dribbler.
Matthew Boyd’s start to the 2020 season is concerning; especially since most thought a shortened season would play into his hand. If he intends to turn his season around, it will be vital to either adjust his slider usage against right-handed hitters or find the lost movement with the pitch to induce weaker contact.