Of all the unlikely breakout stars of 2017, Chris Taylor is a candidate for the honor of unlikeliest.
The infielder/outfielder continues to be a force, homering and tripling in the Dodgers’ Game 3 NLCS victory on Tuesday night to push the Cubs to the brink of elimination.
Taylor entered the season as a wiry, inconspicuous, 6-foot-1, 200-pound, 26-year-old utility man. Over parts of three major-league seasons with the Mariners and Dodgers, he had produced a combined .234/.289/.309 slash line over 318 plate appearances before the 2017 campaign. He was traded by the Seattle to Los Angeles for Zach Lee on June 16 of last season. (Lee was released by the Padres back in August of this season.)
A product of the University of Virginia, Taylor played in a spacious home ballpark as a collegiate during that period of time after the NCAA adopted the less powerful BBCOR bats. So it makes some sense that, over his first three years in the minors, he put two balls on the ground for every ball he launched into the air. He hit seven home runs in 580 Division I plate appearances. He hit 23 home runs in 1,700 minor-league plate appearances. He was not, by any reasonable measure, a power threat.
But this season, Taylor hit 21 homers in 514 plate appearances, the first time he reached double-digit homers at any stop as a college or professional player. For the first time as a professional, he produced an ISO of .200 or better (.208) and produced a 126 wRC+ mark.
Taylor’s average fly-ball distance jumped to 323 feet this year, up from 314 combined between the 2015 and 2016 seasons. From 2015 to -16, his average exit velocity on fly balls was 90.2 mph; this season, it increased to 91.1 mph. His ground-ball rate declined by the three percentage points.
So what happened?
Taylor, like another number of other hitters, jumped on the air-ball revolution bandwagon. What’s different, though, is that Taylor didn’t have to look too far for help.
Yes, his teammate Justin Turner was one of the early air-ball adopters, a hitter who proselytizes openly about his swing beliefs in the Dodgers’ clubhouse. Turner is a reason the Dodgers were among the biggest ground-ball decliners (-3.5 points) in the game this season. (That’s about 200 balls taken off the ground and hit into the air.)
But the Dodgers had also brought on Craig Wallenbrock as a consultant. Wallenbrock — like friend of FanGraphs, Doug Latta — is one of the private instructors who has been a forefather of the modern fly-ball revolution.
J.P. Hoornstra of the Orange County Register reported earlier this season that Wallenbrock had worked with Taylor. And this is notable, because it indicates that at least one MLB team has now added an outsider to their payroll, to work with select players on hitting philosophy.
What’s interesting to this author about the Dodgers is not only have they drafted and developed their own top-end talent like Clayton Kershaw, Corey Seager, and Cody Bellinger; not only do they have the financial resources to fill roster voids with stars (and retain their own stars); but they are also extracting more value out of players. Turner, Taylor, and (on the pitching front) Alex Wood are prime examples.
Tim Keown picked up on this story line recently for ESPN.
Taylor sought out Wallenbrock, who was by then a consultant for the Dodgers, and his 30-year-old assistant, Robert Von Scoyoc, last fall after learning how they had turned a then-unemployed J.D. Martinez into All-Star a few years back.
“It’s a scary thought to completely change what you’re trying to do and maybe risk the possibility of going backward,” he says. “At my age, that would really hurt my career and make it hard to change your viewpoint within an organization.”
Said Dodgers manager Dave Roberts to reporters of Taylor on Tuesday: “To take a chance on trying to learn a new swing and to bet on yourself… that’s what he did. He committed to it. We saw early in spring training he was a different hitter.”
Said Taylor of his swing changes to The Sporting News earlier this year: “My hands are also a little different; I added some rhythm to my hands, and tried to change my [bat] path a little bit to get on-plane a little earlier.”
Taylor is the type of player, like Turner and Martinez before him, who ought to consider such a risk. Each previously resided on the fringes of MLB rosters. But it was a risk nonetheless because a step back could result in losing a job altogether.
But perhaps he was more willing, more open to risk-taking because the Dodgers were willing to compensate an outsider like Wallenbrock, one who worked with Martinez and Matt Joyce. Maybe he was more willing, more open-minded, because Turner is just a few lockers down in the clubhouse. He wasn’t battling against, say, a club’s more traditional philosophy. It was a risk that the organization supported.
[Justin Turner] persuaded a fringe major leaguer with a career .598 OPS to spend last offseason overhauling his mechanics; Chris Taylor, now a starting outfielder, has been L.A.’s best second-half hitter, with an OPS of 1.105. Since Turner assigned right fielder Puig five pushups for every grounder he hit in spring training, Puig has pounded the ball harder than in any season since his first. Turner cues up the curveball machine and challenges 22-year-old rookie first baseman Cody Bellinger to fly ball competitions, with the winner taking home $10 per session. “I’m down a little bit,” Bellinger admits.
After Game 3, perhaps no one was perhaps more surprised than Taylor, himself, to be seated before reporters at a podium in the depths of Wrigley Field explaining how he had become a star and now a postseason hero, at least for a night.
“To say I expected it to happen as fast as it did, I’d be lying,” Taylor said. “Pretty much I felt really good right in spring training, which I was pretty shocked to see that kind of results that fast.”
The speed at which a swing makeover can be implemented is sometimes remarkable. With Taylor as another individual success story of the air-ball revolution, with an outsider like Wallenbrock now being allowed on the inside (at least with a foot in the door), 2017 might be just an early chapter in the story of air-ball revolution.