As slider comes to dominate MLB, Boyd's designer version cuts through
One gray day in April 2012, Oregon State's Matthew Boyd was playing catch with his pitching coach at the tail end of a rain delay when, out of some combination of boredom and curiosity, he asked a fateful question: "How do you throw a slider?" One quick lesson on proper grip and mechanics later, Boyd, then a 21-year-old lefty reliever with a fastball/curve/change-up arsenal, unleashed the first slider of his life, a devilish missile with a sharp left to right break.
"I was like, 'Oh, my gosh,'" Boyd, now the ace of the Detroit Tigers' rotation and one of the top starting pitchers in the American League, recalled recently. "That day, I messed around with it in the game, and I got a three-pitch strikeout to a lefty hitter. That's how it all started."
It is only a slight exaggeration to say the story of Boyd's slider, from its humble origins to its standing as one of the best in the game, is the story of baseball in 2019. Boyd's trademark pitch emerged from constant experimentation and refinement -- informed and honed by a heavy immersion in technology and data-analytics at Driveline Baseball, a biomechanics lab and training facility outside Seattle that has become an industry leader in "pitch design" -- until it became lethal to opposing hitters.
"You take the verbal cues I already had from coaches," said Boyd, 28, "and take the high-speed camera showing how to grip and release it, and the data showing what it's doing, and it's like, 'Oh, man. Now I have a clear direction. Let's go crazy.' And it just got better and better and better."
How is this the story of baseball in 2019? Because while fastball velocity gets more attention -- and is responsible for much of the all-or-nothing, power-on-power approach to pitching and hitting that defines the modern game -- this season can more accurately be defined as the Year of the Slider. If increasing fastball velocity is changing the sport, then the rise in the frequency and effectiveness of the slider is its chief accomplice.
Leaguewide, this season has seen more sliders thrown, as a percentage of overall pitches -- 18.4%, up from 16.9% in 2018 -- than in any season since FanGraphs began tracking pitch data in 2002. And slider velocity has risen -- from 80.4 mph in 2002 to 84.5 this season -- roughly in tandem with fastball velocity, which has shot up from 89.0 to 93.0 mph in the same span.
It stands to reason: Higher velocity leads to higher spin rates, and higher spin rates create bigger breaks. According to data compiled at FiveThirtyEight.com last month, the average MLB slider had about 1 extra inch each of horizontal and vertical break than it did in 2008.
The story of Boyd's slider, then, is a microcosm for the transformation seen across the game. It has lifted a seemingly ordinary pitcher -- Boyd was never considered a top prospect as a minor leaguer and was 22-35 with a 5.07 ERA as a big leaguer entering 2019 -- to the cusp of all-star status this summer.
This year, Boyd (5-4 with a 3.01 ERA) is throwing his slider more than twice as frequently (35.8% of all pitches) as he did as a rookie in 2015 (16.9%) -- mostly at the expense of his two-seamed fastball (3.4%) and slow curveball (5.2%), both of which featured prominently in his arsenal in the past, but which he has all but abandoned in 2019. Opposing batters are hitting just .194 with a .306 slugging percentage against it.
Boyd's elite slider helps explain how a pitcher with a pedestrian fastball (average velocity 91.4 mph, well below the league average) can become such an elite strikeout artist -- with a strikeouts-per-nine-innings rate, 11.24, that ranked seventh in baseball entering Tuesday's play. Every pitcher ahead of him on that list possesses a harder fastball -- in the case of MLB leader Gerrit Cole of the Houston Astros (13.44 K/9), by more than 5 mph.
"His slider has been very tight all year, and he's gotten a ton of whiffs on that below the zone," Tigers catcher John Hicks said of Boyd. "But a lot of that comes from being able to throw the fastball up and in and then throwing the slider on the same plane."
The concept of pitch design, which has overtaken the sport in recent years, may conjure visions of lab-coat-wearing scientists pulling new breaking balls and change ups out of test tubes. The truth is only slightly different: They're pulling them out of computer screens and video readouts.
Boyd's experience is illustrative. Every offseason between 2014-15 and 2017-18, he trained at Driveline, where the staff of coaches, trainers and data analysts use tools such as Edgertronic high-speed cameras and Rapsodo and Trackman data-tracking units to break pitches down into their component parts -- grips, velocities, spin axes, horizontal and vertical movements -- and put them back together with diabolical precision.
"It basically boils down to getting a thumbprint of what the pitch is and how the pitcher generates it," said Driveline founder Kyle Boddy, who has worked extensively with Boyd, "and running the metrics through our quantitative model to see how good the pitch is ... then getting the (recommended) changes back from the algorithms and (making) those changes."
With Boyd, the changes involved first boosting his velocity, which also increased his spin rates, then altering the spin axis on his slider to eliminate its slight backspin, which allowed it to gain significantly more vertical depth and horizontal "sweeping" action -- about 5 inches of each more than his slider had in 2017, according to data at BrooksBaseball.net.
"The biggest thing Driveline helped me with -- I've always been given these (verbal) cues. Coaches would say, 'Get on top of the ball.' And I'd try to see it, but you can't really see what's happening on your fingertips," Boyd said. "But then I got in front of an Edgertronic camera. (The Driveline coaches) were showing me, 'This is the spin you want to create.' It was like, 'Oh, I've always been trying to do something different.'"
All those previous pitching coaches telling Boyd to "get on top of" his slider? Now he had a visual representation -- at 600 frames per second -- of what that meant, along with the data showing him how his spin rate, velocity and movement were ticking up with each tweak.
"We were watching the baseball come off my fingertips, and I'm watching my whole wrist turn," Boyd said. "They're like, 'Don't turn your wrist with it. Think about ripping the side off the ball.' And now I'm seeing it. It was almost instantaneous. Like, boom, boom, 88. I'd never thrown an 88-mph breaking ball in my life. The camera was what bridged everything together. The coaching cues weren't wrong. They just weren't clicking for me on the slider."
But Boyd's slider isn't merely the Dr. Frankenstein's product of lab work and data analysis. Beginning with that fateful day in 2012 at Oregon State, he has also benefited from a series of old fashioned coaching tips.
Two winters ago, lefty James Paxton (now with the New York Yankees), a frequent training partner, showed Boyd how "presetting" his wrist -- cocking the wrist ahead of time into its release position -- boosted the effectiveness of his cutter (a close relative of the slider). Boyd saw immediate results when he tried it, and after honing the pitch at Driveline that winter, posted a 4.39 ERA and 8.4 strikeouts per nine innings in 2018, both career-bests to that point.
Then, last July, Tigers pitching coach Rick Anderson began working with Boyd on lengthening his stride, eventually adding about 6 inches of extension to his delivery, which not only allows him to release the ball closer to home plate but also involves his lower body to a larger degree, generating more power. Anderson also preaches the importance of using his fastball to set up that infernal slider.
"He really gets me back to the basics with my fastball," Boyd said of Anderson. "That's something Rick was really preaching to me. I've gotten a lot of strikeouts on my fastball, too."
This past offseason, with a newborn at home (he and wife Ashley are expecting their second child), Boyd decided to purchase his own Rapsodo unit. The same pitcher who didn't know how to throw a slider seven years ago now possesses one of the best ones in baseball, and can tell the difference, both in the data and the feel, between a good one and a great one.
"I used to throw and get wrapped up in every single pitch," he said. "Now I understand how I feel, what my cues are and what the ball does when it's going right. When something goes out of whack, I know how to fix it."