With a shrinking starting pitching rotation, the Yankees have relied on the strength of their bullpen over the past few seasons. The acquisition of Gerrit Cole was supposed to offset some of their past reliance on their superstar studded pen, but Luis Severino and Domingo German’s absences have exacerbated James Paxton and J.A. Happ’s struggles, leaving the Yankees scrambling to fill out a 5-man rotation.
Yet again, the Yankees are on the prowl for a starting pitcher via trade. One of the team’s top targets last year, Tigers left-handed pitcher Matt Boyd, could be a suitable option in a relatively thin market as we approach the August 31st trade deadline. Last year, Detroit’s astronomical asking price for Boyd allegedly included Gleyber Torres—a nonstarter for the Bronx club. This season, the Yankees have the opportunity to buy low on a young lefty with another two years of team control.
Last year, Boyd turned heads by upping the usage of his excellent slider. His middling 4.56 ERA didn’t tell the whole story, as he sported the sixth best K/9 (11.56) among all starters, several spots ahead of two of baseball’s best arms, Jacob deGrom and Stephen Strasburg.
This year, he’s nearly retained the increased slider usage of last season through his first three starts.
Despite the mostly unchanged arsenal, Boyd’s been atrocious, getting shelled three times, giving up four runs in five innings in each of his first two appearances, and then allowing seven through four and two-thirds. To date, Boyd’s been one of the worst starters in baseball, having given up the more hits (23) and earned runs (15) than any other pitcher.
The slider still breaks nearly as hard as it did last year, generating enough swings and misses to make it the 15th most valuable slider in all of baseball. Boyd’s inconsistency locating it has exposed his myriad weak points — every other pitch he throws — and has resulted in these three horrible outings.
Here is Boyd during the first inning of Opening Day, blowing the advantage against Eugenio Suarez on a two strike count:
Instead of hitting Suarez in the left cheek, Boyd needs to “back-foot” him, throwing a slider that looks like a low strike before it breaks down and out of the zone.
Here’s an example of him executing the pitch perfectly last season, in the same count, the same part of the game, and against a similarly powerful hitter:
Wearing his Players Weekend jersey, ‘Matty B’ makes Nelson Cruz forget he’s swinging a bat, and not a sword.
In terms of velocity and spin rate, this year’s edition of Boyd’s slider is nearly the same pitch as last year’s, but his lack of ability to locate it has made all the difference. He’s not just missing out of the zone, he’s repeatedly hung the pitch when he needs to throw the one he threw to Cruz.
In his most recent start, on Friday, Boyd was punished with homers for hanging sliders on two-strike counts twice. Here’s the worse of the two — a middle-middle hanger to the Pirates’ Erik Gonzalez:
Boyd bounced a slider at Gonzalez’s feet on the pitch prior, missing the catcher’s down and in spot twice in a row on either side; one bounced inside, and the other right down main street. Gonzalez got his money’s worth on the mistake, launching the pitch 106.7 miles per hour and 443 feet away from home plate.
As a left-handed pitcher, Boyd’s slider breaks down and towards the righty batter’s box, meaning the pitch’s break matches the hitter’s swing plane, making it easier to hit. For a right-handed hitter, there are few pitches easier to hit than a hanging slider that breaks into the heart of the zone. Because of his overwhelming reliance on the slider, Boyd’s actually pitched decently well to lefties, but righties have hit him to the tune of a 1.131 OPS.
With Boyd so apt to err, hitters need not fret the sliders on the edges of the zone. He’s nearly maintained the whiff-rate (42.9%) of last year, but his put-away percentage has plummeted from 25.8% to 14.3%. Now, even when he does throw the ‘back-foot’ slider on two-strike counts, hitters are more comfortable laying off because it looks so different from the hangers they are growing used to seeing. In two-strike counts, Matt Boyd has thrown 35 sliders, 20 of which have been balls. None of them were taken for strikes. Only five of them earned Boyd swinging strikeouts—all perfectly ‘back-footed.’
As Boyd’s slider accuracy has degraded, hitters feel more confident laying off the pitch entirely lest it be absolutely piped down the middle. The struggles with his slider have caused Boyd to turn to his other consistently terrible pitches, which have been hit even harder.
With such a slim margin for error, Boyd has to be a surgeon with his slider to strike batters out the way he did last year, and even then, there’s seemingly no room for improvement beyond that. Though his poor performance has certainly driven his price down, the Yankees are likely better off looking for rotation help elsewhere.