Matthew Boyd returns to Detroit Tigers with 'unfinished business' in more ways than one

Evan Petzold
Detroit Free Press

Matthew Boyd is back.

The veteran left-hander's one-year, $10 million contract with the Detroit Tigers became official Wednesday — exactly two weeks after reports surfaced — marking his return to the city he calls his second home. The 31-year-old pitched for the Tigers from 2015-21 and always kept the door open for a reunion.

"I feel like there's unfinished business here," Boyd said Wednesday.

Boyd, a Seattle native, is ultra-passionate about Tigers fans, president of baseball operations Scott Harris, manager A.J. Hinch, pitching coach Chris Fetter and the opportunity to take a step forward, both as an individual and as a team, under new leadership.

He believes his best baseball is ahead of him.

Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Matthew Boyd (48) pitches Saturday, May 22, 2021, against the Kansas City Royals during the first inning at Kauffman Stadium in Missouri.

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"The things I've said over the first seven years I was here, about winning a championship and what it would mean to the city, those don't just go away overnight because you get released," Boyd said. "Those are emotions that you're tied to. All those things still ring true. ... I'm thankful to be back here. I'm excited to be back here. I always hoped I would have the chance."

The Tigers signed Boyd, who turns 32 in February, for two main reasons: to mentor the young pitchers, as clubhouse chemistry is of the utmost importance, and to help win games early in the season as a starting pitcher with upside.

Boyd remembers being mentored by veterans Justin Verlander, Jordan Zimmermann and Aníbal Sánchez throughout his early years as a big leaguer in Detroit, just like he remembers serving as the mentor to youngsters Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and Matt Manning in his final years with the Tigers as an established pitcher.

Returning to the starting rotation, following a brief stint in the bullpen with the Seattle Mariners last season, was "non-negotiable" in discussions with teams as a free agent this offseason.

"That sounds egotistical, but my job is to make that an easy decision," Boyd said. "I know what I can do when I have the ball in my hand in the first inning. I love the ability to dictate a game, to control the outcome. That's our job as a starting pitcher, to impose your will on the hitter, dictate the outing and do it for nine innings. I love that opportunity."

'Matt is not the same pitcher'

The Tigers non-tendered Boyd in November 2021, making him a first-time free agent, because of an injury. He underwent flexor tendon surgery in September 2021, and knowing he would miss some of the 2022 season, former general manager Al Avila passed on a projected $7.3 million salary in his third and final year of arbitration eligibility.

Boyd hit the open market and inked a one-year, $5.2 million contract with the San Francisco Giants, where Harris worked as general manager under president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi. Throwing strikes and generating swings and misses attracted Harris to Boyd.

"Matt is not the same pitcher he was when he was here in Detroit," Harris said Wednesday. "He accomplished a lot of great things, but I think there's some new elements of his game that have developed and improved since he left Detroit. I worked with him firsthand on that in San Francisco."

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Mariners pitcher Matthew Boyd pitches against the Tigers during the sixth inning on Monday, Oct. 3, 2022, in Seattle.

Harris, who played a role in trading Boyd to the Mariners at the trade deadline, referenced Boyd's final outing of the 2022 season, which happened to be against the Tigers at T-Mobile Park in Seattle, as an example of the tweaks to his arsenal and mechanics.

Boyd tossed three scoreless innings with five strikeouts in the 41-pitch outing in early October. He registered 11 swings and misses on six changeups, two sliders, two four-seam fastballs and one two-seam fastball. He also has a curveball but primarily relies on his four-seamer, slider and changeup.

His changeup, in particular, has evolved.

"It's going to be a four-pitch mix," Boyd said. "It's going to be a fastball playing at the top of the zone. It's going to be a slider that I can throw for strikes and swings and misses. It's going to be a changeup that's different from the changeup I had here. I learned a changeup in San Francisco that truly is different than anything I've ever thrown. It plays differently, and it plays better."

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With the Tigers, Boyd had his best season in 2019; he posted a 4.56 ERA, 50 walks and 238 strikeouts over 185⅓ innings in 32 starts. That season opened with a 2.85 ERA through his first 12 starts, as he looked like an early dark horse in the American League Cy Young race. One problem: He allowed an AL-leading 39 home runs over the entire season.

He then gave up an MLB-leading 15 homers over 60⅓ innings in the COVID-shortened 2020 season but only nine long balls over 78⅔ innings in his injury-shortened 2021 season.

Boyd, who prides himself on trying to improve, reflected on the homer problem.

"Home runs were an issue," he said. "Missing bats was not an issue. It's weird to say those in the same sentence, but it was like, 'How can I minimize this?' I tweaked, and I probably tweaked a little too much."

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Upon joining the Giants, Boyd studied his arsenal and mechanics with the coaching staff while rehabbing from elbow surgery.

He didn't pitch in the big leagues until Sept. 1 with the Mariners, and despite a career-low 13⅓ innings last season, his slider induced a 34.6% swing-and-miss rate and his new changeup triggered a career-high 58.8% whiff rate.

"Those are the little things," Boyd said. "Instead of trying to add different facets to my game, it's understanding what I do well, maximizing those and living off those. I'm excited about the plan that's laid out by the staff here, between the front office and the coaching staff, and I'm excited about the opportunity we have in front of us as a team."

Buying into Harris' vision

What happened to Boyd as a member of the Giants is what Harris is trying to recreate as the Tigers' boss. While the Tigers aren't in the mix for elite free agents this offseason, they are focused on improving the players in the organization — big leaguers and prospects alike — through a culture of development.

Boyd, who has first-hand experience, has bought into Harris' vision.

"I know everybody wants to make a big splash and make big signings, and those are great," Boyd said, "but if we can all get a little bit better, and we can get the guys in between the white lines better and everything else outside the white lines better, and we can all make these marginal gains, who knows what the outcome is going to be? It's going to look different."

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Tigers pitcher Matthew Boyd walks off the mound after being taken out by manager AJ Hinch, center, during the eighth inning of the Tigers' 3-2 loss in Oakland, California, on Sunday, April 18, 2021.

The roster certainly looks different compared to the 2021 version.

Newcomers Javier Báez, Austin Meadows and Eduardo Rodriguez were acquired by Avila last offseason, while mainstays Jeimer Candelario, Harold Castro, Willi Castro and Victor Reyes were ushered out by Harris this offseason. Former prospects Spencer Torkelson, Riley Greene and Ryan Kreidler, along with Joey Wentz, Alex Faedo and Beau Brieske, are fresh faces at the big-league level.

On Wednesday night, the Tigers signed right-hander Michael Lorenzen to a one-year, $8.5 million contract.

"This roster is better than it was in 2021 when I was here last," Boyd said. "You look at the wins and losses, and there were a lot of tough breaks on this team. This is a better team. ... You look around the league, and we can do it. Scott sold me on that vision, and it's exciting."

The Tigers carried postseason aspirations into last season and finished with a 66-96 record and fourth place in the AL Central. The chances of a significant improvement in 2023 appear slim, but Boyd sees the bigger picture.

Most importantly, he wants to do his part in rewarding the fans for their patience throughout the rebuild.

"People are passionate about Tiger baseball, even in our tough years," Boyd said. "The heart and the love for Tiger baseball is still there. People want to win. We want to win for them. We want to bring a championship to Detroit. It's been too long. That's our goal: Bring excitement back to Tiger baseball. The fans deserve that."

Contact Evan Petzold at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter@EvanPetzold.