Detroit Tigers: Rediscovering Matthew Boyd

CINCINNATI, OHIO - JULY 24: Matthew Boyd #48 of the Detroit Tigers throws a pitch against the Cincinnati Reds during the Opening Day of the 2020 season for both teams at Great American Ball Park on July 24, 2020 in Cincinnati, Ohio. The 2020 season had been postponed since March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
CINCINNATI, OHIO - JULY 24: Matthew Boyd #48 of the Detroit Tigers throws a pitch against the Cincinnati Reds during the Opening Day of the 2020 season for both teams at Great American Ball Park on July 24, 2020 in Cincinnati, Ohio. The 2020 season had been postponed since March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images) /
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Has Matthew Boyd emerged from the doldrums of recent seasons and started to rediscover the form that put him on the map? Or is it too early and Boyd is still in “Show Me” territory?

Well, folks, let’s be honest…it’s five starts. The calendar still says “April”. It’s five good starts mind you, but Boyd has me looking for waterfront rentals on Lake of the Ozarks because the Missouri State Motto keeps popping to mind describing where Boyd’s career currently sits. Can he keep putting on the show we’ve watched in the early going for Detroit Tigers fans?  Show me.

Matthew Boyd pitched himself into a corner over the last two years of consistent struggles. Boyd had lost much of the cache of goodwill he’d built up through the promise of his pitching. Boyd’s charitable home runs allowed numbers had started to overshadow most of the talk of Boyd’s actual charitable work for humanity. This is unfortunate given Boyd’s obvious love for helping those in need.

A bright spot in the Detroit Tigers’ sad state

Saturday versus the Royals, Boyd was once again effective and looked sharp for much of the afternoon in the brisk 2:10 affair. Five starts and a sparkling 1.82 ERA to begin the 2021 campaign make it seem Boyd’s head is coming up above the water line for a deeply satisfying and life-affirming breath of success.

After being crushed by the opponent’s homers for two seasons Boyd finally gave up his first homer of the season last Sunday to Sean Murphy while the Tigers eventually dropped another game to the Oakland A’s after Boyd exited. Boyd has looked good and reminding everyone it once looked like he’d be a prime asset to shop for a legit prospect or two to aid the rebuild of the franchise.

New Tigers pitching coach Chris Fetter will obviously be at the forefront of speculation regarding his influence in a Boyd resurgence. Boyd has been throwing fewer fastballs to this point and shows a stronger emphasis on his off-speed offerings. In some respects, the changes in pitch mix are similar to Michael Fulmer who is also throwing fewer heaters in April versus past rates and Fetter might be behind it.

The earliness of the season however makes it very difficult to pinpoint trends that will hold up over the six-month season. For instance, Boyd was at roughly a 40% fastball usage rate after three starts which were over a 20% drop from last year. But after the good effort in Oakland, the season rate on heaters had risen to 43% suddenly less off the pace from his dud year in ‘20. After facing the Royals it’s now bumped up to 45%. The numbers are most assuredly still evolving and will be until a larger data set is available.

Boyd’s homer tendencies of prior years are well documented. It’s been an unfortunate aerial bombardment in the cheap seats as Boyd pitches were turned into Saturn rockets. Therefore it’s very eyebrow-raising for Boyd to have only given up one dinger in 34.2 innings to this point. It’s obviously an unsustainable rate but what isn’t obvious is how close will Boyd let it slide to the bad old days.

Boyd’s success is also definitely being aided by a career-low walk rate through his five starts. It’s a very tidy 4.5% and well below his career mark of 7.6%.

Keeping the ball in the park on contact and issuing a career-low percentage of walks is a pretty good foundation of success. The question is sustainability.

“STRIKE ONE!!”—Random Umpire

The number that seems most interesting and could be the key to Boyd’s success is a whopping 75% of first pitches to batters have been strikes. He’s definitely embraced the “race to two strikes” mantra being ballyhooed in Detroit by manager AJ Hinch and Fetter. Getting ahead in the count hadn’t led to more strikeouts for Boyd, he’s off his career pace there. But the walk rate has cratered in his favor and perhaps being ahead in counts has batters on the defensive leading to fewer long balls to this point. Of the 101 balls put in play versus Boyd, only 5 have qualified as a “barrel” shot…well below any previous rate by Boyd.

Next Steps

What is ahead for Boyd? We can’t know if this success has legs. He’s still in Show Me territory. It’s still a five-start sample. But the sample continues to grow and Boyd has been a metronome of success so far in ‘21 by limiting the walks and not looking in for a new ball after allowing another homer.

Eventually, it’s going to lead toward trade talks this summer if Boyd stays effective. It’s inevitable. The Tigers don’t have numerous attractive players to present in trade talks at the deadline. If Boyd is still cruising along in late May into June, his name will be out there.

An alternative for the 30-year old southpaw is an extension to make him a long-term piece of the continuing rebuild effort in Detroit. The Tigers have shown no real bit of urgency to commit to anyone long-term, however, so the trade route seems more likely.

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The early returns are pointing in Boyd’s favor. He has several numbers leaning his way. It’s still too early to say there is a new Matthew Boyd in town but it’s not too early to think this time Boyd might be pitching his way out of Detroit to a contender in July. He may just milk this success for another 8 or 10 starts. It’s still “Show Me” time…but he did it again against Kansas City on Saturday as the sample size grows.

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