The Spin Behind Matt Boyd’s Early Season Success

The Detroit Tigers pitching staff is off to a ridiculously strong start. Their team ERA ranks as the 2nd lowest (tied with Pittsburgh) in the majors at 2.25 (only the Rays are ahead of them with a sterling 1.58 ERA), and as a team, they have struck out the 5th most batters (81 K’s in 72 IP). Opposing hitters have mustered a whopping .184 AVG against Tiger pitchers (that ranks 2nd).

One pitcher who has been integral to Detroit’s prosperous pitching staff is LHP Matt Boyd. Boyd (28 years old), a former of the 6th round pick of the Toronto Blue Jays back in 2013, has not only been the Tigers best pitcher, but he has been one of the most dominant pitchers in the majors. Here are his stats (all stats per FanGraphs unless otherwise noted) through two starts (11.1 IP)…

  • ERA: 3.18 (33rd among 58 SPs with at least 10 IP)
  • FIP: -0.01 (2nd)
  • xFIP: 1.18 (2nd)
  • K/9: 18.26 (1st)
  • BB/9: 3.18 (35th)
  • WHIP: 1.24 (40th)
  • fWAR: 0.8 (2nd)

In this investigation, I will attempt to determine the changes/adjustments Boyd has made (which are allowing him to thrive on a new level).

Photo: Elsa/Getty Images

First let’s take a look at hitters plate discipline numbers against him…

2018

  • O-Swing%: 29.6
  • Z-Swing% (% of time hitters swing at pitches inside the strike zone): 68.0
  • O-Contact%: 66.3
  • Z-Contact%: 84.6
  • Contact%: 77.9
  • SwStr%: 10.2

2019

  • O-Swing%: 33.6
  • Z-Swing% (% of time hitters swing at pitches inside the strike zone): 70.2
  • O-Contact%: 30.8
  • Z-Contact%: 78.7
  • Contact%: 57.0
  • SwStr%: 20.2

The improvements Boyd has made are genuinely remarkable. Hitters are swinging and missing on twice as many pitches (that they swing at) inside the zone (as they were last year), and when swinging at pitches outside the zone, hitters have had no luck whatsoever — they are making contact half as frequently on those pitches (as they were the year prior). Perhaps most impressive of all, hitters have failed to make contact with 33% of the pitches they’ve swung at (that is best in the majors among SPs).

At first, I assumed Boyd’s incredible strides towards becoming a top of the rotation caliber pitcher could be attributed to increased velocity (knowing it was probably not command — 2018 BB/9: 2.69 vs 2019 BB/9: 3.18). But after taking a closer look, I realized that was not the case…

2018 average pitch velocities (per FanGraphs’ Pitch Info Pitch Velocity)

  • Fastball: 91.1
  • Curveball: 72.6
  • Slider: 81.0

2019

  • Fastball: 91.3
  • Curveball: 71.2
  • Slider: 78.8

What is likely driving Boyd’s breakout is increased levels of spin on his fastball and slider (presumably generated from different horizontal and vertical release points). Here are the spin rates on his pitches from the first two starts of the season compared to last year…

2018 average spin rates (per Statcast)

  • Fastball: 2282 RPM (111th out of 259 pitchers [who have thrown at least 1000 pitches (complete pitch mix)]; 57.1 percentile)
  • Curveball: 2276 RPM (151th out of 202 pitchers; 25.2 percentile)
  • Slider: 2322 RPM (122nd out of 204 pitchers; 40.2 percentile)

2019

  • Fastball: 2409 RPM (13th out of 86 pitchers [who have thrown at least 100 pitches (complete pitch mix)]; 84.9 percentile)
  • Curveball: 2233 RPM (67th out of 83 pitchers; 19.3 percentile)
  • Slider: 2398 RPM (32nd out of 75 pitchers; 57.3 percentile)

Here’s what MLB.com has to say in regards to the influence of spin on a pitch:

The same pitch thrown at the same Velocity will end up in a different place depending on how much it spins. (For instance, a fastball with a high Spin Rate appears to have a rising effect on the hitter, and it crosses the plate a few inches higher than a fastball of equal Velocity with a lower Spin Rate. Conversely, a lower Spin Rate on a changeup tends to create more movement.)


As more data have become available, most experts have agreed that fastballs and breaking balls are tougher to hit when they possess higher Spin Rates. In fact, some data suggest that Spin Rate correlates more closely than Velocity to swinging-strike percentage.

He’s throwing both his slider and fastball with a lot more spin. Although Boyd’s curveball generates less spin than most other curveballs, it has become an even more effective pitch for him. Here are two potential reasons as to why…

  1. There is a greater variation in spin between his curveball and slider (2018: 46 RPM difference vs 2019: 155 RPM difference) now.
  2. His fastball has more spin (more of a rising effect), which gives the curveball a different look.

Likely as a result of increased spin on his pitches, Boyd has been to coax a whole lot more whiffs…

2018 SwStr%

  • Fastball: 7.0
  • Curveball: 7.4
  • Slider: 15.8

2019

  • Fastball: 15.7 (+8.7)
  • Curveball: 19.1 (+11.7)
  • Slider: 26.9 (+11.1)

In terms of how Boyd is generating more spin on pitches, there’s no way to no for sure, but here is one probable cause…

Graph courtesy of Brooks Baseball
Graph courtesy of Brooks Baseball

Increasing his horizontal release point and decreasing his vertical release point may have led to a higher spin rate (for his fastball and slider).

I looked through some video to see if I could notice a difference in release point (I sort of did). Here are the clips (both via Baseball Savant)…

2018 against the Jays @Rogers Centre (https://baseballsavant.mlb.com/sporty-videos?playId=f5d94655-2f82-40fa-9d72-966a761a88b1)

2019 against the Jays @Rogers Centre: (https://baseballsavant.mlb.com/sporty-videos?playId=7b5a90a6-39bd-430c-8e96-ad5fb42ce05b)

2018 release point
Lower vertical release point & greater horizontal release point

It is also worth noting that Boyd has been throwing more fastballs (48.6% — up 9.8% from last year) and sliders (36.6% — up 5.5%), and he has virtually abandoned his changeup (1.6% — down 6.1%) and sinker (1.6% — down 8.4%). I’m a little bit surprised that Boyd has made such little use of his changeup considered it garnered a 14.6% SwStr last year. Needless to say, Matt Boyd is in quite the zone right now, and he is flashing serious ace potential. It remains to be seen whether or not he can keep it up though.

Thanks for reading.

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