What's behind Boyle's improved command?

March 2nd, 2024

This story was excerpted from Martín Gallegos’ A’s Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

MESA, Ariz. -- What is doing right now makes absolutely no sense.

If you combine his Cactus League numbers this spring with his numbers both in the Minors and Majors since joining the A’s at the 2023 Trade Deadline from the Reds in exchange for Sam Moll, Boyle, ranked Oakland’s No. 20 prospect by MLB Pipeline, has walked just 23 batters in 54 2/3 innings pitched.

This is the same Boyle whose scouting reports across the board at the time of that deal with Cincinnati read something along the lines of: ‘The stuff is excellent with a high-octane fastball but the control, or lack thereof, is worrisome.’ This is the same pitcher who joined the A’s organization carrying a career 19 percent walk rate in three Minor League seasons.

A switch flipped for Boyle immediately after that trade. His performance of six shutout innings in his first game with Double-A Midland last August prompted then-Midland manager Bobby Crosby to send a report up to A’s manager Mark Kotsay labeling Boyle as, “A No. 1 or No. 2, frontline guy.” By September, he had joined Oakland’s starting rotation, taking a no-hitter into the seventh inning at Angel Stadium in his final start of the season.

Boyle’s newfound command has carried over this spring, which begs the question: What the heck happened?

There are some theories out there.

“The league he was in used a different type of ball, which may have led to some command issues,” A’s director of player development Ed Sprague said, referring to experimental pre-tacked baseballs being used in the Double-A Southern League last season while Boyle was in the Reds’ organization. “Maybe that had something to do with it, or maybe something clicked. Sometimes that happens. We knew his arm was special, but command was an issue. He figured something out when he came over to us.”

Boyle downplayed the notion, noting that other pitchers had no problems throwing strikes with the Southern League’s experimental baseballs.

“You can’t pinpoint it on that,” Boyle said. “The balls were definitely different. They’re definitely weird. But my stuff was unbelievable with those balls, because they were just not real. The ball just moved differently. Everybody’s stuff went up. I’m pretty sure everyone was talking about how the strikeouts went up in that league, but also the walks went up. So, maybe there’s something to that, but I don’t think so, because I started to string together better outings, even with those [pre-tacked] balls.”

Earlier this spring, Kotsay provided his own hypothesis on the matter.

“This is an opinion, but in the Minor Leagues, he may have gotten caught up in trying to be perfect,” Kotsay said. “When we got him, we said, ‘You don’t have to be perfect. You just have to be on the plate.’ So instead of focusing on the upper left quadrant or upper right quadrant [of the strike zone], it’s like, ‘You don’t have to pitch to quadrant. Just pitch to the zone and then allow your stuff to play.’ That’s what he’s done since he’s gotten to us.”

Boyle did not fully discredit Kotsay’s theory.

“There’s definitely some truth in that,” Boyle said. “But if you look at my numbers from before I got traded, I was starting to string together some pretty good outings. That’s where I started to make the progress.”

So if it was not the experimental baseballs or the shift in focus on the mound, what was that change that unlocked his vastly improved command?

“It’s not one thing,” Boyle said. “It never is. I know everyone is like, ‘What did you do differently?’ It’s always a multitude of things. It could have just been, like, sometimes there was a lot on me at one time and it was really hard to handle at first. Then, over time, I got used to it and got better and it became simple to me. At first it was complex, then it became simple.”

Boyle added: “Nothing really changed. I just finally made that adaptation. I finally got a little better. Whatever you’re trying to do, you just trust in your process and be more in command of what you’re doing.”

Boyle entered Spring Training in competition for the final spot in the A’s rotation. But if he keeps up this new version of himself as a strike-throwing machine who is throwing a wipeout sweeper and consistently reaching triple digits with his fastball, the conversation may soon shift to how long before Boyle emerges as a potential ace of the staff.