Detroit — The competitor lies deep within Matthew Boyd, buried beneath layers of politeness, professionalism, altruism and a genuine righteousness. He’s a good human first, a good husband and father first, a good teammate first.
Make no mistake, with a baseball in his left hand, Boyd is as fierce and driven a competitor as there is. It doesn’t always manifest in on-field theatrics, but it’s there in the intensity of his workouts and the breadth and scope of his preparation — the man literally built his own pitching lab at his house on Mercer Island, complete with a hyperbaric chamber.
That fire manifests in his unwavering belief in himself, his indomitable will to succeed and his unflagging desire to help his team win.
I thought a lot about Boyd and his competitive fire last October. There he was living out a dream, not only pitching for the Seattle Mariners, his boyhood team, but helping to get them into the postseason for the first time in two decades.
He couldn’t hold back the tears in the clubhouse as he watched his teammates celebrate the clincher.
Underneath the euphoria, though, his competitive fire had to be smoldering. As good as he pitched — allowing just two runs in 13.1 innings out of the bullpen in September, after missing a year and a half with flexor tendon surgery — he never fully won the trust of manager Scott Servais.
Boyd made only one appearance in the Division Series against the Astros. He faced three batters in the 16th inning of the Mariners’ 1-0, 18-inning marathon loss in Game 3. Servais used seven relievers before Boyd and then yanked him after he faced the minimum three hitters.
Though Boyd would never show it or speak of it, you wondered if that bothered him or maybe even motivated him on some other level. You wonder if, maybe, as he rejoins the Tigers rotation on a one-year, $10 million deal, he does so with a little chip on his shoulder.
More like, as he embarrassedly said on Thursday, with some power in his pocket.
“Maybe that’s not the best way to put it,” he laughed. “Not exactly the right marketing slogan there.”
Boyd wasted zero time moping about not being used in the postseason. And he’s never needed any outside motivation. What the last 16 months have done — from the time of his surgery in September of 2021, to the Tigers non-tendering him, to signing with the Giants and then being traded to the Mariners — is reassure him that his best is yet to come.
“It’s more excitement that I feel, not motivation,” he said. “I am so grateful for the opportunity I had in Seattle last year, getting to pitch for my hometown team and getting to the playoffs. That’s something I wanted to do every year here and we came so close in 2016.
“We had some rough years in between, but it’s not like that thought leaves you. I want it. Getting to taste that champagne was special. Now, my goal is to do it here, to celebrate on the top of that dugout (at Comerica Park) and in that clubhouse and in front of these fans.”
The only frustration for Boyd was the interruption. Working with manager AJ Hinch and pitching coach Chris Fetter in 2021 was like a revelation. He had the misfortune of being a staple of the rotation during the final days of the Tigers’ analytical dark ages. In terms of mechanics and data, Boyd was essentially his own analytics department from 2015-20.
But, from the day Fetter told him to just focus on competing and getting hitters out and he’d handle all the other stuff, Boyd felt liberated.
“I felt like a burden was lifted,” he said. “I was so equipped to go out and have success. And I was just starting to taste that, and the proof was there, until I got hurt.”
Boyd posted a 1.94 ERA and held hitters to a .203 batting average in his first seven starts of that year, before his body started to gradually break down. First some pain in his legs, then the forearm, and the ultimate flexor tendon strain.
“And, I didn’t really even feel I had my whole game together yet,” he said. “I was just starting to scratch the surface. At that point, when I got hurt, I was like, ‘I know what is ahead of me and I can’t wait to get there.’”
Tigers president of baseball Scott Harris was part of the leadership team in San Francisco that saw what Boyd could be and signed him for $5.2 million, even though he wouldn’t be ready to pitch until late in 2022. Boyd used the time and the Giants’ vast resources to further his understanding of his own biometrics, as they related to his pitch arsenal. By the time he was traded to Seattle and cleared to pitch — of course, it was against the Tigers at Comerica Park on Sept. 1 — he felt unleashed.
“It was just getting back to who I knew I could be,” Boyd said. “Man, I just felt like I got this power in my pocket waiting to let it rip.”
When that line was said back to him in the form of a follow-up question, he cringed at how it sounded and elaborated.
“It’s just understanding my game and understanding what I have,” he said. “I feel like I have a grasp on this. Not only do I know what I can do; I understand what I can do to make it better and I know the fruits that can be reaped when I execute that. It’s exciting, man.”
‘It’s going to be a fun year’
Boyd’s repertoire is basically the same — four-seam fastball, slider, changeup, occasional two-seamer. He didn’t throw his curveball much out of the bullpen last season. But, he’s refined, reshaped and sharpened them all, especially the fastball and slider.
The velocity on his four-seam sat between 92-93 mph, as usual, but he found a way to get 150 more rpm’s of spin on it — 2,482 rpm, which is in the top-sixth percentile in baseball, according to Statcast. That helped give the fastball more late zip through the zone.
The slider, a pitch he lost the feel for in 2021, limited hitters to 2-for-14 with five strikeouts. He got a 34.6% whiff rate with it.
“I just feel equipped,” he said. “I feel equipped on my own side in terms of how I prepare myself and how I understand myself as a pitcher. I feel equipped knowing I’m going to go battle, and we’ve got this whole team of coaches and staff that’s going to take care of all the nitty-gritty for me, and my job is to get on that mound and let the hitter have everything I’ve got.
“It’s just me — and the other guy is in the way. That’s what excites me.”
Nobody knows what the results will be, of course. Although Boyd made every start for three seasons between 2017-19 and averaged 163.3 innings, he turns 32 next month and has thrown just 152 innings since, including only 13 last year, coming back from the surgery.
But, we’ve seen the best version of Boyd here, albeit in too-short bursts, and it can be dynamic. That’s the pitcher Boyd expects to be, is determined to be, this year. All the other intangibles he brings — the leadership, the mentoring of younger pitchers, being the team’s clubhouse foreman and most likely union rep — are a given and shouldn’t be taken lightly.
“Any time you have expectations of what you think you should be, you set yourself up for failure,” Boyd said. “You take yourself out of the moment. I know who I am as a ball player and I know what I’m called to be as a person. You can take the word ‘role’ and throw it out the window.
“I am just going to be who I know how to be. That is who I am inherently. You are just going to see me. And whoever that may be for this team and how I fit in the greater puzzle of the Detroit Tigers — it will work. It’s going to be a fun year.”