| The Detroit News
Detroit – He’s coming off probably the most confounding season of his six-year big-league career, what with the pandemic, the forced shutdown, the quarantines, the hurried 60-game schedule and invasive COVID-19 protocols.
Not to mention his own performance issues.
He’s said thank you and goodbye to two beloved coaches (Ron Gardenhire and Rick Anderson) and will be walking into an entirely different environment next spring with a new manager (AJ Hinch) and pitching coach (Chris Fetter).
On top of that, at a time when he should be kicking back and relaxing at his Mercer Island (Wash.) home, he finds himself quarantined again because his wife and daughter have tested positive for the virus.
To say the least, there is a lot on Matthew Boyd’s plate these days.
“They’re pretty much out of the woods now,” Boyd said of his wife Ashley and daughter Meira. “Ashley went through some tough stuff last weekend but Meira was asymptomatic, thankfully.”
A baby-sitter had the virus and didn’t bother to inform the Boyds of her condition. She is no longer their baby-sitter. Back in March, a high school kid that Boyd hired to cut his lawn tested positive, too. Both times, Boyd, an asthmatic who is considered high-risk, dodged the virus.
“I don’t know how,” he said. “But I got some new (workout) equipment set up in the garage so I’ve been out there getting in some good work.”
There’s Boyd in a nutshell right there. Nobody can find silver linings as readily as he can.
Take this past season, for example. On the whole, it was a clunker. A 6.71 ERA in 12 starts, leading the American League in losses (7), earned runs (45) and home runs (15). His strikeout rate was down and his walk rate was up.
“There were so many silver linings in it,” Boyd said. “There was so much I learned through it. I learned how to throw my curve ball and change-up more. I learned how to shape them and really discovered what good weapons they are.”
The bulk numbers are disturbing, and he’s not trying to sugarcoat that. But there’s context here that wasn’t widely known, context that puts his season is a much different light.
Boyd strained his left hamstring early in summer camp. In a normal, 162-game season where he’d get 30-plus starts, he would have started the year on the injured list. But he was only going to get 12 starts at most and he wasn’t about to give up any of those, so he patched it up and soldiered through.
He altered his mechanics, at first consciously and then unconsciously, to compensate for the hamstring. The impact of the mechanical alteration was harsh. It affected every pitch, especially his slider, his put-away pitch, the pitch that held opponents to a .189 batting average with a 43.6 percent swing-and-miss rate in 2019.
Opponents hit .229 against the slider in 2020, with a 39.8-percent whiff rate.
To put it simply as possible, he couldn’t rotate the same way off his left leg, his drive leg, and that affected the rest of his throwing motion. It hindered his ability to keep his hand behind the slider and push through it. Instead, he was coming around the slider, causing it to lose its shape and bite.
Metrics collected by the Tigers’ analytics staff showed negative changes in the spin axis, vertical break and spin efficiency on all his pitches.
After his first four starts, he recalibrated his mechanics again and made his curveball and change-up more prominent parts of his arsenal.
And just as he was adapting to those changes he developed – probably a result of the mechanical compensations for his hamstring – plantar fasciitis in his left foot, which pestered him through his last three starts.
Given all that, it’s quite remarkable how he finished the season.
In his first four starts, he was tagged for 22 runs in 19 innings. Opponents hit .353 with a 1.075 OPS.
In his final eight starts, he gave up 23 runs in 41 innings, with opponents hitting .237 with an .804 OPS.
That’s the takeaway for Boyd. He learned how to adapt. He found a way, despite serious physical challenges, despite twice recalibrating his mechanics, to stay competitive and give his team a chance to win ballgames.
“Everything got better as the season went along because I was learning to adapt,” he said. “My arm feels better now than it ever has. There was a lot of work to do at the end of the year, just in terms of my arm, elbow and shoulder – making sure everything is strong and recovered because I didn’t have nearly the same workload I’ve had in past years.
“But after I got my leg and foot figured out, after the first few weeks of the offseason, my body feels great, the best I’ve felt coming off a season.”
He’s already been throwing, using his regular pitching mechanics – a third recalibration.
“I’m not throwing the ball like I was over the last five months,” he said. “It’s completely different.”
Meaning, back to normal. Which is a good way to head into a brand-new environment.
New voices, new direction
Boyd, entering his age-30 season, is arbitration-eligible for a second straight year. He made $5.3 million, before proration, last year. If it goes to arbitration, he could be awarded as much as $6.2 million, according to estimates by MLBTradeRumors.com.
This is about the point when the Tigers cut catcher James McCann loose. Like Boyd, McCann was coming off a down season, eligible for a sizable raise and the Tigers opted not to tender him a contract. It seems highly unlikely the Tigers will follow the same path with Boyd, even if he ends up costing them three times what McCann would’ve cost in 2019.
“I got a pretty good guy handling that,” Boyd chuckled, meaning his agent Scott Boras. “Who knows what will happen? I don’t know. But it all happens for a reason. I’m not worried about it.”
No, he’s not. In fact, he’s talking like a guy who cannot wait to jump into this new era of Tigers’ baseball.
“My initial take on the coaching changes was just, grateful for everything Gardy and Rick and the whole coaching staff did for us,” Boyd said. “They took us through some dark times. It wasn’t easy for any of us. I’m just really thankful for all their tutelage.”
Boyd was among the first players Hinch and Fetter reached out to. He came away not only impressed with both, but enthused.
“It’s just awesome to have a guy like AJ, with his track record, coming in here leading our team,” Boyd said. “He’s a champion. It’s very, very exciting.”
In Hinch, Boyd sees a manager who can empathize with what the players have endured the last three years and one who also has the map and the means to get them back into contention.
“He’s really been through the rigors like we have,” he said. “He was on that 2003 Tigers team (119 losses). He’s been on both sides of it. He’s been in the valley and he’s also held the trophy.”
As for the Hinch’s involvement in the Astros sign-stealing scandal – not a factor for Boyd.
“He didn’t need to say anything,” Boyd said. “The way I see it, there’s my business, there’s AJ’s business and there’s God’s business. The stuff that happened isn’t my business. I need to know where my line is drawn.
“I know he apologized for it and that’s awesome. We all make mistakes. His just happened to be shared with everybody in the world. We’re all human. It’s not my place to judge him. I just want to learn from him and continue to grow as a ballplayer.”
Fetter, meanwhile, only four years older than Boyd, is a kindred spirit. Up until this past year, Boyd was probably the most knowledgeable person in the organization in terms of pitching analytics and technology.
He’ll meet his match in Fetter.
“Talking to him on the phone, hearing how we’re going to go about things and his ideas for going forward, not just working on things that happened last year but growing in this – it’s just really exciting for me and from a pitching staff perspective,” he said.
But Fetter may end up leaning on Boyd’s expertise, too, especially as it relates to working through a 162-game big-league grind.
“No, no, he’s the coach, I’m the player and I want to learn all he has to teach,” Boyd said. “I don’t know what I don’t know. I’m really excited to learn from him and tap into his knowledge of everything.”
Normally at this time of year, Boyd would be planning his annual journey to Uganda to visit Kingdom Home – a sanctuary and school that he and Ashley have built through their non-profit organization to house victims of the child sex trade.
That’s not going happen this year. COVID, the “gift” that keeps on giving.
“You know what, everything that’s happened, it’s cool,” Boyd said. “You deal with it, right? You learn from it. And, honestly, so much good has come from it.”