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Matthew Boyd is an ace now

Not only is he one of the best pitchers on the trade market, but he’s one of the best starters. Period.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Baltimore Orioles Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

When I wrote about Lance Lynn’s remarkable season last week, I remarked that there were some surprising names in the list of top-10 pitchers. One of those names was the Tigers’ Matthew Boyd. Through Boyd’s first four seasons in the big leagues, he owned a career ERA of 5.07 and a modest strikeout rate of 19.9 percent. Through his first 15 starts in 2019, Boyd has a 3.35 ERA and a 2.72 DRA, and he has become a premier strikeout pitcher. He has struck out 30.7 percent of batters, making him the second most improved pitcher in strikeout rate behind Lucas Giolito.

Earlier in the season, Sung Min Kim of FanGraphs wrote about some of the changes that Boyd has made. He’s lowered his release point and added more spin to his fastball. He’s one of many pitchers to drop the sinker and rely more on high fastballs and sliders. The latter pitch has dramatically improved this season, and that has been a major driver of his success.

It’s possible that if Boyd had come up ten years earlier, he never would have moved beyond being a solid back-of-the-rotation starter. His fastball isn’t overpowering, and before now, he’s never really had a plus secondary pitch. His slider was good enough, but his changeup and curve never really worked the way he wanted. When he made his major league debut, an optimistic projection of him saw him as a solid number three starter.

Throughout his major league career, Boyd has worked on improving the depth of the slider at Driveline Baseball. He also worked with James Paxton on improving his command with the breaking ball. He detailed the process of bettering himself in an interview with FanGraphs’ David Laurila. In the interview, he called the process a “progression,” and that’s an apt descriptor. Every season, his slider has gotten a little more depth, and that’s easy to see with Baseball Savant’s pitch movement measurements.

Baseball Savant

Boyd’s slider is dropping more than ever. Part of that has been the drop in velocity. Slower pitches have more time for gravity to enact on them. Boyd’s constant tinkering is the bigger factor, though. It’s interesting to see how Boyd’s slider has evolved over his major league career.

Matthew Boyd’s Slider

Year Velo Inches of Drop Drop vs Avg
Year Velo Inches of Drop Drop vs Avg
2015 80.5 42.9 2.8
2016 84.3 32.2 -2.3
2017 86.2 29.4 -4.2
2018 80.5 41.3 -1.9
2019 79.8 45.1 1.4
Baseball Savant

The drop versus average column measures the drop against other major league sliders thrown at a similar velocity and point of release. When Boyd threw his slider in the mid-80s, it dropped less than other sliders thrown in the mid-80s with a low three-quarter arm slot. As he has slowed his slider down, it not only drops more than his faster slider, but more than other slow sliders.

The results have been hard to deny. Below is a graph of Boyd’s whiff percentage on the four seam fastball and slider, the two pitches that he throws 85 percent of the time.

Baseball Savant

What’s remarkable about Boyd is that as he’s thrown his slider more, his ability to hit the strike zone hasn’t wavered. Patrick Corbin, another lefty who has thrived with increased slider usage, has had to sacrifice his ability to hit the strike zone with regularity. Boyd is throwing fewer sliders across the plate, but he has made up for it with becoming more accurate with his fastball. Overall, his in-zone percentage hasn’t changed in a meaningful way.

Baseball Savant

Boyd is still confident enough in his ability to get the slider over for a strike that he will still throw it behind in the count. Even in the 66 pitches he’s thrown down 3-1, he has still thrown a quarter sliders. For a pitcher who primarily throws two pitches, being able to maintain some unpredictability is vital.

Baseball Savant

There are rumors that the Tigers are willing to trade Boyd this summer before the one, true trade deadline on July 31st. Boyd has three more years of arbitration left before he reaches free agency. Even if 2019 is a high-water mark, the improvements that Boyd has made make him one of the most appealing starters on the trade market. Shopping Boyd would do wonders to gain reinforcements for the Casey Mize generation of Tigers coming up.

Regardless of what happens, Boyd is off to an unbelievable start. Whichever team he’s playing for come season’s end should feel lucky to have him.

Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and McCovey Chronicles. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.