Jameson Taillon Has One Thing Missing
By Andy Singer
Photo Credit: Sarah Stier, Getty Images
Of the players the Yankees acquired this offseason, Jameson Taillon is likely the player with the widest array of value outcomes (at least among players who would be counted on to perform as a key member of the lineup/rotation). By this point, Yankee fans know the story: after an early career filled with injuries and a fight with cancer, Taillon seemed to have fulfilled much of his promise with a big 2018 season, prior to re-injuring his elbow early in 2019. By the start of the 2021 season, it had been almost 2 years since Taillon had pitched in a professional game, and he’d be one of the relatively few players trying to pitch following a 2nd Tommy John Surgery.
Despite the downsides, there was plenty to be excited about. Prior to the start of the season much had been written (including by yours truly) about Taillon’s upside with his fastball. To quickly summarize, the Pirates under pitching coach Ray Searage preached heavy use of two-seam fastballs at the bottom of the zone. However, multiple former Pirates pitchers, including Gerrit Cole, found significant success after leaving the Pirates by abandoning the two-seamer at the bottom of the zone in favor of high-spin fastballs at the top of the zone. Looking at the numbers pre-Tommy John Surgery, Taillon looked like a good candidate for this approach given the presence of good fastball spin and velocity.
Early on this season, the results have been mixed. While Taillon is striking out batters at a higher rate than ever before, with 34 strikeouts through 28.2 innings, he has just a 5.02 ERA and has struggled to avoid “uh-oh” innings. Some Yankee fans have wondered if Taillon will be more than what he is right now: a talented, but flawed pitcher who is more of a back-end rotation piece than a mid-rotation (or better) stalwart. I want to take a look at what Taillon needs to do to take that next step.
First, we have to acknowledge what’s gone right. Taillon certainly appears healthy on the mound, which was not a given for someone with his injury history, so that’s a start. Taillon has also found two breaking balls that he can locate and with which he has been super effective.
Taillon’s slider has been nearly unhittable, with batters hitting just .167 with a .205 wOBA. He has also been able to consistently spot the slider at the bottom left (pitcher’s perspective) corner of the zone. He hasn’t generated many strikeouts with the pitch (yet), but hitters can’t square it up. Taillon’s slider has been good in the past, but it’s been even better this year.
Taillon’s curveball has been more of a strikeout pitch, getting 9 through the early part of the season with it, but he also hasn’t been hurt by anything other than singles with the curve, with hitters batting .259 with a .289 wOBA. Taillon has used the curve all over the bottom of the zone with good results. So far, so good.
The bad: Taillon’s new four-seam fastball, while located well at the top of the zone, has been hit really hard thus far. While he gets a lot of whiffs with the pitch (30.8 Whiff% and 21 strikeouts), it has been hit hard to the tune of a .263 batting average and a .390 wOBA. His location has been good, his velocity has been above-average, and the bottom-line spin rate has been nearly elite. So what gives?
I think when analyzing pitches, we have gotten too comfortable looking at averages or summary statistics. The issue with doing this, when it’s worked for everything else we evaluate statistically in baseball? All it takes is two or three bad pitches to ruin an outing. In Taillon’s case, I don’t think the summative stats give us the full story, so we need to dig deeper.
The other night when I was watching Taillon, I noticed a mechanical inconsistency when he throws the fastball. It was very difficult to find video that shows what I’m getting at, but I’ve done my best, and I’ll describe what’s happening. Bottom line: I don’t think Taillon has been consistent enough with the manner in which he throws his fastball.
Let’s look first at the video below:
This is video of the homer that Taillon allowed to Josh Bell in the 2nd inning of last Friday night’s (5/7/21) game against the Nationals. The location of the pitch wasn’t great, but more importantly, the pitch was flat and lifeless. Despite that, the bottom-line stats are very close to in-line with his standard fastball: the pitch shown in the video was thrown at 92.8 MPH, with 2430 RPM spin, 15 inches of vertical drop (with gravity) and 3 inches of horizontal movement according to Statcast, while Taillon’s average four-seam fastball is 93.6 MPH with 2461 RPM of spin. For me, the big issue is the lack of horizontal movement, caused by poor spin direction, as it rode into the plate on a rail. Why did that happen? In the slow-mo replay at the end of the above video, notice how Taillon’s hand releases the ball (apologies for the grainy shot):
(Click to Enlarge)
Taillon’s hand does not get directly behind the baseball, so the spin, while present, is not as efficient at creating movement and ride.
That was not the case with a 1-1 fastball Taillon threw in the 5th inning to Yadiel Hernandez (I apologize, but this video would not embed, but please watch the video at the link above). The bottom-line numbers for this pitch are very similar to the pitch that Bell knocked out of the park: 94.0 MPH and 2463 RPM of spin. Despite the numbers, we can see that the pitch has significantly more life and ride, and I would argue that the pitch seems to jump on Hernandez. The movement numbers bear this out, as the pitch had 12 inches of vertical drop with gravity, and twice the amount of horizontal movement (6 inches) compared to the fastball thrown to Bell. While the velocity and raw spin numbers are similar, the movement profile is different. The difference? Hand position. Again, the picture is a bit blurry, but check out Taillon’s hand position as he releases the pitch:
(Click to Enlarge)
By comparison, Taillon’s hand is almost directly behind the baseball, which is almost certainly contributing to greater active spin and better spin direction.
The reality is that Taillon conducted a major overhaul of his mechanics between 2019 and today, with major surgery in-between, and no professional games to test his mechanics. While the mechanics looked great in bullpen sessions and in Spring Training, the added adrenaline of real game action can cause mechanical inconsistency until the movements are ingrained in muscle memory. This is a small mechanical issue with very big consequences. Looking through Taillon’s starts this season, the horizontal movement on his four-seam fastball has varied by as much as 12 inches, which is more than any starter I have seen on the Yankees. As good as Taillon’s shorter arm action looks this season, I think he still has a little bit of development left. The weakness in his current arsenal is pretty clearly fastball consistency, more than anything else I can see in his profile.
The good news is that I think Taillon can still develop greater consistency given the fact that these mechanics are so new to him. As Taillon gets more comfortable on the mound with greater confidence, I fully expect his arm and hand to get into better position at the point of release. Based on what I see, I think that Taillon has more to give, and is still fully capable of achieving the promise Yankee fans saw when the trade first occurred this offseason. At its best, Taillon’s fastball is a weapon that produces bad swings and strike outs. Consistency is key, and in Taillon’s case, achievable, so I think the best is yet to come. Thursday’s start against the Rays would be a good time to take some steps in the right direction.