John Niyo: Hinch's 'race to two strikes' philosophy a game-changer for Tigers' Matthew Boyd

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John Niyo, The Detroit News
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Apr. 8—It's a good sign your message is being heard as a manager when you start hearing it repeated back. It's an even better sign, though, when you start seeing it put into action.

And so it is with this "race to two strikes" we've heard quite a lot about from AJ Hinch and the Tigers' pitching staff this spring.

A year ago, the Tigers' starters ranked dead last in the major leagues in ERA. They also were last in innings pitched and strikeouts, not coincidentally. And perhaps no one exemplified the Tigers' struggles on the mound more than Matthew Boyd, the team's presumptive ace who loaded the bases before recording a single out in his first start of an abbreviated 2020 season and ended the year with the worst ERA (6.96) of any qualifying starter in the American League.

Yet here he was Wednesday, looking flawless at times in his second strong start of a new season against the Minnesota Twins. Even in a losing effort, it's an outing that has to be viewed as a win for Boyd. And probably for Hinch and the coaches as well, because it's more validation that a new-and-improved approach — attack first, last and always — eventually will produce better results.

"When you pound the strike zone with that kind of conviction, good things can happen when you have your good stuff," Hinch said after Boyd made it through seven innings for the first time since August 2019. "He demonstrated today that controlling the strike zone is key, and he did an excellent job of giving us a chance to win."

That they didn't win had little to do with Boyd's outing, really. Some reckless baserunning in the sixth inning — making two outs at home plate — probably is what cost the Tigers a second series win to start the season before hitting the road for a three-city, 10-game grind.

Boyd's first two starts couldn't feel any different. The temperature was below freezing for Boyd's Opening Day outing last week, when he spent a good part of that sleeveless effort throwing heat amid snow flurries. Wednesday, it was 74 degrees for Boyd's first pitch, though, and in a sign of things to come, that pitch was a called strike.

Boyd would go on to throw first-pitch strikes to the first 19 batters he faced Wednesday, a streak that didn't end until the top of the sixth inning. That's the first time he fell behind in a count all game, too, and it would only happen once more after that.

And by the time Boyd's day was done, getting a handshake from Hinch on the dugout steps after striking out Twins outfielder Jake Cave with a slider to end the seventh, he'd thrown 96 pitches, 77 of them for strikes.

Yet as respectable as the final pitching line read — seven innings, seven hits, three runs and no walks with eight strikeouts — it was the way he got there that really resonated.

He worked quickly, and oh-so-efficiently, which are two things we didn't see enough of from him a year ago, when he labored through some nagging injuries and too often was slowed by indecision. On Wednesday, Boyd was in command from the start, building 0-1 counts on 24 of the 27 batters he faced, and 0-2 counts on 12 of them, including nine in the first four innings.

"We set the tempo and we went out there on the attack, reading their swings," said Boyd, who was quick to give credit to his catcher, Wilson Ramos, for much of his success. "We dictated tempo and stayed on the attack all day long."

Attack, attack, attack. That's what Hinch and his coaching staff — specifically new pitching coach Chris Fetter — have been preaching since the start of spring training, and even before that, really. Be aggressive, get ahead in the count, and then use that leverage to your advantage, not as a crutch. Bite, don't nibble.

And while Boyd has been guilty of that in the past, he certainly wasn't in this game against the Twins. Sure, he was kicking himself for a 2-2 fastball he threw to Minnesota's No. 2 hitter, Kyle Garlick, that resulted in a two-out single and ultimately led to a couple runs that flipped the day's script. Boyd said he'd wanted to locate that fastball up and in and just missed his spot. But that was about all he missed with Wednesday, and he knew it.

"I think what he did today is exactly the type of conviction that we want to have as a pitching staff in general, but specifically Matty," Hinch said. "Because pounding the strike zone with good stuff, good things can happen."

Boyd had good stuff, to be sure. His changeup, which improved greatly last season and looks even better this spring, was put to the test early and often as Boyd utilized a four-pitch mix Wednesday. He threw 29 changeups in all, and got a dozen strikes with it that were either called strikes or whiffs. And as Hinch noted prior to the game, "This is not a team that swings and misses a ton."

No, and it's a team that hits out of the park fairly often, which has been Boyd's bugaboo in recent years. He led the AL in home runs allowed each of the last two seasons, but has yet to give up one in his first two starts this year. That's 55 batters faced over 12 2/3 innings of work, and maybe another sign the Tigers are taking the new manager's sales pitch to heart.

"Strikes are your friend," Hinch said, "especially when you execute."