If a pitcher’s season is like a chess match, the next move belongs to Tigers’ Matthew Boyd

Detroit News

Chicago — Tigers manager AJ Hinch didn’t like the term “struggling” as it was applied in a question about Matthew Boyd Tuesday night.

“I don’t think that’s fair,” Hinch said after Boyd allowed five runs and three home runs in the Tigers’ 10-7 win over the Brewers in Milwaukee. “I think (his last four starts) have not been as dominant as he was at the beginning of the season, but I think he’s been a competent pitcher.

“He hasn’t been perfectly sharp, but he doesn’t have to be. Nobody is for an entire first half of a season, let alone an entire season.”

Hinch, of course, is correct. Taken in full, the body of work for Boyd through 11 starts is creditable. He’s got a 3.90 ERA, a 1.17 WHIP and an opponent batting average of .235. He’s worth one win in terms of WAR.

Still, we’ve seen this movie before with Boyd. The fast start, the sudden slide. Go back to 2019. He posted a 2.85 ERA with a .218 opponent average, 88 strikeouts and seven home runs allowed in the first 12 starts. Over the next 16, though, the ERA jumped to 5.95, the opponent average to .253 and the home runs to 29.

Maybe it’s too soon to sweat it, but this feels similar. Boyd was dominant over his first seven starts this year — 1.94 ERA, .203 opponent average, just .270 slugging against, 29 strikeouts, nine walks and one home run.

In his last four, not so dominant — 7.84 ERA (18 earned runs in 20⅔ innings), .291 opponent average, .547 slugging and five home runs.

“Sometimes it goes your way and sometimes it doesn’t,” Boyd said. “Sometimes one or two pitches will dictate the line in an outing, but not tell the whole story.”

More: Rookie Baddoo epitomizes the resiliency Tigers showed in May turnaround

Undeniably, Boyd has pitched through some bad luck in recent starts — sloppy defense behind him against the Cubs on May 16, some puny run support in six of his 11 starts and some softly-struck baseballs producing damage. It is significant to note that the average exit velocity on balls put in play against him this season is just 87 mph.

He’s not getting bludgeoned. He’s is well above average in exit velocity (65th percentile in baseball), hard-hit rate (61st percentile) and chase rate (84th percentile).

His outing Tuesday, though, was more disconcerting than the previous three, mostly because the one constant throughout the season, his ability to command all his pitches, faltered. He became something he rarely is — predictable.

“His pitch selection (Tuesday) was a little different than it has been in previous outings when he was a little sharper,” Hinch said. “The other side is game-planning against him, too, and they’re going to counter his punches and some of the things he’s doing.

“He will have a couple of things up his sleeve for the next one.”

It’s not just that opponents know he’s going to attack and throw early strikes. Boyd has a 68% strike rate and a 71% first-pitch strike rate. Hitters know that and Boyd knows they know it. He’s adjusted accordingly. Opponents are just 7-for-31 against him on first pitches with one home run. When Boyd wins the race to two strikes, he wins the at-bat eight out of 10 times (opponents hitting .191 with two strikes).

But the Brewers flipped that script on him. Kolten Wong hit a 1-1 slider out of the park to lead off the game and then he ambushed a first-pitch slider for a second home run in the third. That after Boyd, staked to a 7-2 lead, walked pinch-hitter Daniel Robertson after having him in an 0-2 hole.

“Wong jumped me on that first slider and then shame on me for throwing it the second time,” Boyd said. “He’s usually a guy I beat with breaking balls and he hit me (Tuesday). He had something on that pitch.”

Boyd said he didn’t think the Brewers were sitting on his slider and change-up Tuesday. Still, they took a lot of close fastballs, even with two strikes, and he wasn’t fooling them with his secondary stuff like he typically has — not until the fourth and fifth innings when he better established a four-seam fastball that was sitting between 93-94 mph.

“When he started landing his spin (slider, curveball) later in the game, that opened up his fastball for him,” catcher Eric Haase said. “He was beating guys in situations where he’d normally go to the slider or breaking ball.”

But what comes first, establishing the heater or landing the secondary pitches? Former pitching coach Rick Anderson always thought the former was more vital for Boyd. He harped on Boyd to establish the fastball first and then go to the spin.

“The first couple of innings I was getting ahead early and then just missing after that and letting them back into counts,” Boyd said. “I made that adjustment in the fourth and fifth innings, but the pitch count was getting high.”

Nobody is suggesting that Boyd is in crisis or that major changes are necessary. But a baseball season is a chess match for starting pitchers. Opponents have made an adjustment against his arsenal after his first seven starts.

It’s Boyd’s move now. It’s not healthy that left-handed hitters are hitting .246 and slugging .404 against him, as opposed to right-handers (.232, .362). It’s not healthy that he’s faded noticeably in the sixth inning of his starts (eight runs allowed with a 1.106 OPS), or that three of the six homers he’s allowed have come the third time through the batting order.

“All in all, the stuff is there,” Boyd said. “I don’t want to sit here and say it was good, but there is stuff to build off. It wasn’t a train wreck or anything. There’s always going to be stuff to keep getting better at.”

Boyd’s strikeout rate is down to 19.5%, his lowest since 2017. The swing and miss rates on his slider and change-up are down from even a down year last year (17% fewer with his slider, 13% fewer on the change-up). Boyd said that’s one area he needs to address, being more aggressive with two strikes.

“I’m not going to try to change anything,” he said. “I’m still getting ahead in the count, still getting the kind of contact we want for the most part. They’ve hit a few mistakes and they hit them out of the park. That’s the way it shook out, but I know what I’m going to do going forward. Just stay the course.”

chris.mccosky@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @cmccosky   

On deck: White Sox

► Series: Four games at Guaranteed Rate Field, Chicago

► First pitch: Thursday-Friday — 8:10 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday — 2:10 p.m.

► TV/radio: All games on BSD/97.1

Probables: Thursday — RHP Casey Mize (3-3, 3.28) vs. LHP Dallas Keuchel (4-1, 4.53); Friday — RHP Spencer Turnbull (4-2, 2.93) vs. RHP Lucas Giolito (5-4, 3.73); Saturday — LHP Tarik Skubal (2-7, 4.59) vs. LHP Carlos Rodon (5-2, 1.98); Sunday — TBA vs. Dylan Cease (3-2, 3.79)

Mize, Tigers: This will be his fourth start against the White Sox, all of them in Chicago. Since losing to them on April 29, he’s posted a 1.74 ERA and a .162 opponent batting average over five starts. He’s matched up well against the right-handed heavy White Sox lineup. Righties are hitting just .156 off his slider with a 32% whiff rate and .196 off his four-seam fastball.

Keuchel, White Sox: The two-time All-Star and former staple of Tigers manager AJ Hinch’s rotation in Houston has been hit or miss in 11 starts. He’s allowed eight home runs in 251 plate appearances, significant since last year he allowed just two in 257 plate appearances. His strikeout rate (12%) is lowest since his rookie year.

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