Matt Boyd’s Surprising Success

Matt Boyd was terrible last year. In fact, let’s just be really honest and acknowledge that he was pretty bad through the first 290 innings of his career with a 5.47 ERA, 1.47 WHIP, and 11% K-BB rate. His best effort through three seasons was a 4.53 ERA and 1.30 WHIP back in 2016. While never a Top 100 guy, Boyd was a prospect of some acclaim and expectations had him becoming a capable backend starter.

He’s starting to meet those expectations with a 3.23 ERA and 1.09 WHIP in 75 innings so far this season. His success has perplexed analysts and fantasy players alike as no one can seem to make sense of how he’s throwing the best baseball of his career despite virtually no change to his base skills. I decided to dive in and see what’s going on.

Let’s start with the holy trinity of factors I regularly look at when investigating a pitcher: velocity, pitch mix, and approach. He’s actually experienced a major velocity drop, which is a key reason why so many are scratching their heads at his success. Boyd has dropped his velocity across the board, shaving 3 mph off his fastball, 6 mph off his slider, 3 mph off his curveball, and 4 mph off his changeup. It’s not as if he had a lot of velocity give, either, dropping from 92 to 89 on his fastball. The slider velocity drop was more purposeful.

He’s using the fastball just 42% of the time, a career-low, while that slider has been amped up 33% usage (+22 pts from ’17). The curve is down a little to 15% while the changeup usage has been more than cut in half from 21% to 9%. Both sides are getting some of that improved slider usage with lefties up 12 points to 39% and righties seeing it way more at 31% of the time, up from just 8% last year. Obviously, the slider stands out in all of this. It’s a different pitch and undoubtedly the driver behind this success. It’s not new, though, it’s the return of his old slider.

He spoke to David Laurila about it in David’s incredible “Learning & Developing a Pitch” series, mentioning the evolution of the pitch and how some offseason work with James Paxton led to this latest iteration:

This offseason, I threw with James Paxton a little bit and he showed me how he throws his. We obviously have a much different slider-cutter, but I threw it like his and from there it took on a shape of its own with my own delivery. It’s become a real weapon for me. We talked about grip, pressure, wrist… different thoughts you have with how you preset your wrist and how you come through it.

I’m a very loose-wristed guy on all of my pitches, and I think that helps with how the ball comes off my fingers, but sometimes with the slider I get too loose with it — I have a tendency to get around it. He talked about his wrist, and that really clicked with me. I wouldn’t put mine in the same category — [Paxton] has a really nasty one — but the way we throw our sliders is similar.

We actually saw the slower slider from Boyd back in 2015 with the Jays and Tigers. It was successful at 80 mph (.504 OPS in 46 PA) and then he dialed it up to 84 in ’16 and maintained success (.552 in 55 PA), but it was a nightmare at 86 mph last year with a .918 OPS in 72 PA. Dialing the velo up and down isn’t the only reason for success and failure of Boyd’s slider, but he definitely seems more comfortable in the low-80s velocity band.

Over the last two years, Boyd’s slider has had a traditional approach of in on righties, away to lefties. But back in ’15, he used it all around the zone to righties and that’s what we’re seeing again this year. He still mostly runs it away to lefties as you’d expect, but it’s purposefully being scattered around the zone to righties.

Boyd has a .481 OPS with the slider against righties this year in 87 PA, after a 1.028 last year in 46 PA. He’s nearly doubled his plate appearances ending on a slider against righties in half as many starts as last year. By the way, he had a .440 OPS in 2015 with the same spread-it-around-the-zone approach we’re seeing this year.

A big part of that approach has been the backdoor slider for called strikes. He’s been dotting the outer third of the zone with called strike sliders against righties. He already has 52 this year after just 14 all of last year. It’s been a great setup pitch. Here’s one early in the count to Xander Bogaerts:

He tried another one the next pitch that was too far out and actually bounced off John Hicks’ glove, but then came back with a 93 mph fastball in the same spot and froze Bogaerts for the strikeout:

Boyd only has a 19% strikeout rate, though, so that particular scenario is not happening often. We are seeing consistently weaker contact from the pitch. He’s already induced eight pop-ups with sliders to right-handers after getting just one in the last three years combined. Remember how I said yesterday that pop-ups are gold because they are basically automatic outs? Sometimes you get unlucky like this one to Cheslor Cuthbert where he lost his bat but still wound up with a double:

But it usually looks more like this one to Eduardo Nunez:

This is probably something for another day, but this out against Nunez got me thinking more about pop-ups because it definitely is one, but it obviously wasn’t classified as an infield flyball as it reached Leonys Martin in center so it wouldn’t make it into my formula for Automatic Outs. Anyway, back to Boyd. He’s also induced four pop-ups off the slider against lefties, the first four of his career. Outside of that bloop special from Cuthbert, the opposition is 0-for-11 on Boyd’s slider pop-ups.

I’ve focused on his work against righties because of the 228-point improvement in OPS, but let’s not sleep on his work against lefties and the 167-point improvement there. It’s also driven by the slider with a .448 OPS in 34 PA after a .731 in 26 PA all of last year. All told, Boyd’s slider has netted a filthy 12.2 pitch value, fourth-best in among qualified starters. He’s also benefitted from the less-is-more effect with his fastball that we’re seeing across the league as his .723 OPS is easily a career-best after a .923 through 2017.

The last major factor in Boyd’s success is actually beyond his control: team defense. It’s easier to run a 19% strikeout rate when the defense is converting your batted balls into a .232 BABIP and .199 AVG, both Top 10 marks among qualified starters. The Tigers are 10th in defense and for once it’s not just Jose Iglesias. JaCoby Jones (6) and Leonys Martin (2) are both Top 30 in Statcast’s Outs Above Average as they try to cover Nicholas Castellanos’ league-worst -12 mark. Castellanos and the first base combo of Hicks and Miguel Cabrera are the only negative positions on the diamond for Detroit this year.

There’s also been some plain old good fortune. Boyd’s running a 6% HR/FB rate, well below his career average (12%), which also happens to be the league average. Some of it is yielding weaker flyballs (not just with the slider, but his whole arsenal) and sometimes it’s just warning track shots that might go out on a windier and/or hotter day, like this one from Aledmys Diaz:

The bottom line is that I don’t believe this is all smoke and mirrors. The slider, the improved fastball against righties, the defense, new pitching coach Chris Bosio, and good fortune have gotten him to this point. I wouldn’t really see someone with elite K-BB and velocity maintaining a .199 AVG and 6% HR/FB, so I’m certainly not going to project that for someone who is below average in both facets.

I think we’ll see something in the low-4.00s from Boyd with some mid-3.00s upside, especially if the likely HR/FB regression is some solo shots and not multi-run homers. I’m eager to see him against the Reds tonight, a top 10 offense against lefties (well 11th, but the Tigers are 7th so they don’t really count for DET SPs). After that, he draws the A’s at home (27th in wOBA v. L) and Jays on the road (18th).

Keep an eye on that slider, of course, but also how he performs when ahead. He squandered too many opportunities last year and wound up with the 85th OPS of 91 SPs (min. 25 starts) in pitcher counts (.632, 9 HR), but this year he’s 12th (min. 10 starts) at .367 with just one homer allowed.

Paul is the Editor of Rotographs and contributes to ESPN's Daily Notes. Follow Paul on Twitter @sporer and on Twitch at sporer.

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4 years ago

Nice work to include the defense and the pitching coach.