DETROIT -- The final damage for Matthew Boyd on Sunday afternoon came on a home run off a high fastball, a common sight last year but a rarity this season. Ian Happ’s opposite-field shot was an add-on run in the Tigers' 5-1 loss to the Cubs at Comerica Park, but just the second homer of the season off Boyd, who yielded the most in the American League the past two seasons.
That difference alone says quite a bit about the season Boyd is having, moreso than his 2-4 record. Most of his damage Sunday came inside the park, helped in part by the Tigers' defense. Happ scored from second base on a ground ball when Detroit focused on a double-play attempt and missed him rounding third. A Harold Castro error at third base extended the fourth inning for a Happ RBI double, then a missed cutoff throw by Robbie Grossman allowed David Bote to take third base on his RBI double and score on a sacrifice fly.
“They did take 90 feet when we threw the ball a little bit high or had guys all over the place,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “As fun as it is on the offensive side when you do that, it is tough defensively when you give up those extra bases.”
Boyd finished with five runs (four earned) on six hits and one walk in six innings. He tied his season high with eight strikeouts. His ERA jumped from 1.94 to 2.45, but remains sixth best among AL starters as of mid-afternoon Sunday. Boyd's .965 WHIP remains fifth best in the AL.
Boyd's turnaround, and his big-picture transformation as a pitcher, has been a bright spot in what has been a rough start for the Tigers' season through 40 games, former manager Sparky Anderson’s old mark for evaluating a team. The next quarter of a season should give a good evaluation of Boyd, and it could leave Detroit’s front office with an interesting decision to make ahead of the July 31 Trade Deadline.
Stylistically, Boyd has evolved from a heavy dose of fastball and sliders into a pitcher willing to use his full arsenal in different counts to keep hitters off-balance. His fastball comprised just over one-third of his 92 pitches Sunday, down from his 45.6 percent rate for the season, according to Statcast. It accounted for six of his 14 swings and misses, but it was set up by a heavier dose of offspeed pitches.
After manager Hinch talked before the game about the importance of Boyd mixing his breaking balls, Boyd used his curveball -- the fourth pitch in his repertoire -- to start off at least four batters and give a different look compared to his slider, which drew five swings and misses and half of his strikeouts.
“Outside of [leadoff hitter Willson] Contreras, everybody started swinging first pitch,” Boyd said. “That was their game plan against me, so we just kind of countered by changing speeds.”
The Tigers have scored two runs or fewer in five of Boyd’s eight starts, including Sunday against Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks, who allowed just one run tossed eight-plus scoreless innings.
Boyd’s stats are as good or better through eight starts this year than they were at the same point two years ago:
2019: 2.86 ERA, .197 batting average, .934 WHIP, 50 1/3 innings, 3 HR, 63 K
2021: 2.45 ERA, .208 batting average, .965 WHIP, 47 2/3 innings, 2 HR, 37 K
A bigger difference is the pitching behind the numbers.
“Using all four of my pitches as compared to just two of them heavily,” Boyd said, “and also using both sides of the plate, especially with my fastball. I think those are two things you could really pinpoint, but there are little differences, too, like getting ahead in the count at a pretty good clip. There are less pitches per at-bat. [The] changeup is kind of an equalizer for that, a pitch going in a different direction.”
Boyd's aforementioned stretch in 2019 sparked trade speculation for a Tigers team that was headed toward 114 losses. A midseason downturn tempered interest, and general manager Al Avila decided to keep him.
Two years later, Boyd’s Tigers tenure is again nearing an intersection. The 30-year-old is eligible for free agency after 2022. The strength of Detroit’s rebuild is pitching, with Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal already in the rotation and learning with help from Boyd. Matt Manning’s first three starts at Triple-A Toledo -- including eight home runs allowed over 12 2/3 innings -- suggest he’ll need more time.
The Tigers have to decide whether Boyd fits in the long-term plan enough to pursue a contract extension, trade him this summer for young talent, top prospect or otherwise, or play out the situation into next year with the option of recouping a Draft pick should he leave in free agency.