Matthew Boyd spent the better part of his offseason working to sharpen his curveball, getting in front of a high-speed camera. When the pandemic shut down Spring Training, he had his Rapsodo machine shipped from his offseason home in Seattle to his Detroit-area home so he could keep working at it, measuring spin and looking for break. With a better changeup, Boyd felt good about being a four-pitch artist.
One cruel inning against an unforgiving Reds lineup in a 7-1 loss on Friday at Great American Ball Park gave the Tigers' ace lessons that technology could not.
“Tonight’s on me,” Boyd said, “and I’ll get better from it.”
As Boyd stared at a bases-loaded, no-out jam, with two runs already in, he was more than 20 pitches into his first career Opening Day start and still seeking his first swing-and-miss. He had hit former Tiger Eugenio Suárez with a slider to load the bases, then hit former teammate Nick Castellanos with a curveball to force in a run -- two uncharacteristic self-inflicted miscues -- and Boyd could neither draw a swing nor hit the strike zone with his new breaking pitch. With Rony Garcia warming in the bullpen and the Reds threatening to break the game open, Boyd went back to the fastball-slider combination that he leaned on heavily for much of last year.
“He didn’t have a good feel,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “He was trying to get a feel for it and I think he hit two guys in the foot.”
It wasn’t just the curveball or any one pitch, Boyd said. But it also wasn’t jitters of his first career Opening Day start, an assignment he had been anticipating since Spring Training.
“It was the whole package,” Boyd said. “There was something wrong right in the foundation, in terms of a little mechanical tweak, just how I lined up on the rubber.”
Boyd's 26th pitch was his first out, a Matt Davidson popout. Four pitches and two groundouts later, Boyd was out of the inning with no more damage. Two runs were still too many the way Sonny Gray was pitching, and the Reds added two more by the time Boyd’s outing was over, but the left-hander avoided a disaster -- not just for him, but for Detroit’s bullpen with potential long work looming at the other end of the rotation.
“That’s what Matty does,” Gardenhire said. “He keeps grinding.”
In the process, Boyd learned what he needed to tweak. He’ll have four days of rest before his next start on Wednesday against the Royals.
“Something new to learn from today,” Boyd said, “and I’m going to take that going forward and go attack and make adjustments. We made adjustments as the game went on. It’s the frustration that I needed to make the adjustments sooner.”
The Tigers need deep, competitive outings from Boyd to have a better season. This team generally goes as he goes and feeds off his competitiveness. Moreover, as Detroit's rotation turns over, Boyd will follow a fifth-starter spot that could tax the bullpen out of necessity.
Boyd threw fastballs and sliders for 85 percent of his pitches last year, according to Statcast, an imbalance that both the Tigers and Boyd would like to temper. He threw his changeup a little more often down the stretch, but his curveball was a distant fourth pitch, comprising just 4 percent of his pitches in 2019. He won’t give up on it after one outing.
“It’s the kind of thing where I know everything will be right, and I like where everything is when my fastball is where it wants to be,” Boyd said. “In the fourth and fifth, it was getting there. It was continuously better.”
Boyd spun five curveballs out of his 88 pitches Friday, just two of them after the first inning, according to Statcast. None of them drew a swing, and none drew a called strike. Six of his eight swinging strikes came on sliders, the other two on fastballs. He threw 68 sliders and fastballs in all, including a 2-0 fastball that Joey Votto lofted into the right-field seats for a solo homer in Boyd’s fifth and final inning. Boyd allowed four runs on six hits with two walks and two strikeouts.
C.J. Cron’s fourth-inning solo homer in his first game as a Tiger accounted for Detroit’s lone run against Gray, who paid for a sinker down and in to Cron, though he struck out nine over six innings of three-hit ball. The Tigers put only one runner in scoring position.