Chris Taylor Puts the Super in Superutilityman

On Tuesday, July 20, Chris Taylor led off the bottom of the first inning with a double off the Giants’ Alex Wood. But he was still hungry, so he homered twice and drew a walk later in the same game.

On Wednesday, Chris Taylor led off the bottom of the first inning with a homer off the Giants’ Logan Webb. But he was still hungry, so he later singled off Webb.

On Thursday, Chris Taylor led off the bottom of the first inning with a single off the Giants Anthony DeSclafani. But he was still hungry.

On Friday, Chris Taylor led off the bottom of the first inning with a double off the Rockies’ Chi Chi González. But he was still hungry, so he later singled off Daniel Bard.

On Saturday, Chris Taylor led off the bottom of the first inning with a single off the Rockies’ Kyle Freeland. But he was still hungry.

On Sunday, Chris Taylor led off the bottom of the first inning with a home run off the Rockies’ Jon Gray. But he was still hungry, so he later added another homer off Gray, plus a single.

On Monday, Chris Taylor was named the National League Player of the Week. No word on whether he ate through one nice green leaf to celebrate.

It was quite a week for the Dodgers’ jack of all trades, even if the rest of the team has had its ups and downs. With a depleted lineup that at times resembled those for split squad spring training games — to say nothing of a rotation that’s currently without two former Cy Young winners — the Dodgers split the final six games of their seven-game homestand, losing two of the aforementioned three to the Giants (plus the one before it) before taking two of three from the Rockies. Taylor not only covered shortstop for the entire stretch in place of the injured Corey Seager, he took over the leadoff spot atop the lineup due to the absence of Mookie Betts, who on Sunday was finally placed on the Injured List due to inflammation in his right hip.

For the week, Taylor hit .414/.433/1.000 with five homers; each of those leadoff homers helped to erase a 1-0 first-inning lead and was accompanied by another shot later in the game that helped the Dodgers on to victory. The outburst lifted his overall line to .284/.380/.497, which represents career highs in on-base and slugging percentages. His 140 wRC+ is a career high as well, and both his 16 homers and 3.5 WAR put him on pace to break career highs (21 homers, 4.8 WAR) set in 2017. Quite simply, he’s been one of the most essential position players on a powerhouse team. Including last season, he’s hit .279/.375/.489 for a 138 wRC+ and 4.9 WAR in a team-high 152 games. Only Betts has a higher WAR in that span (5.9), and while three other Dodgers have a higher wRC+ — Justin Turner at 145, Betts at 143, and Will Smith at 142 — they’re closely bunched together, with Seager and Max Muncy additionally tied with Taylor at 138.

Like Turner and Muncy, Taylor — whom the Dodgers acquired from the Mariners for former first-round pick Zach Lee in 2016 — is yet another player who fizzled in another organization, then reinvented himself with the Dodgers thanks to a swing change and went on to become an All-Star. He made the team for the first time this year, while Muncy and Turner both made their second.

Taylor has less power than Muncy, doesn’t hit for as high a batting average as Turner, and has more swing-and-miss in his game than either of the other two. As Jake Mailhot pointed out in early June, he’s tightened up his approach at the plate, chasing less often than before and getting to average in terms of runs in the Statcast shadow zone; where he was a combined 56 runs below average on those borderline pitches from 2017-19, he’s at zero over the past two seasons (+2 this year). That’s thanks at least in part to some mechanical adjustments he made last season, which he discussed via Zoom in March:

“When the ball slows down, your plate discipline gets better. I think I made some mechanical adjustments that slowed the ball down a little bit, gave me more time to see the ball. When you’re not late on fastballs, and having to cheat to catch up to the velocity, I think you’re going to chase less off-speed pitches out of the zone. I think it was a combination of making those mechanical changes that put me in good positions to slow the ball down a little bit and allowing me to be on time.”

Despite the changes, Taylor’s Statcast numbers aren’t particularly remarkable:

Chris Taylor Batted Ball Profile
Season GB/FB GB% Pull% EV Barrel% HardHit% AVG xBA SLG xSLG wOBA xwOBA
2017 1.16 41.5% 38.3% 87.0 6.2% 34.0% .288 .261 .496 .436 .361 .332
2018 0.86 33.6% 37.8% 88.9 7.7% 37.6% .254 .230 .444 .390 .335 .311
2019 1.09 37.9% 34.9% 86.0 4.7% 31.8% .262 .228 .462 .375 .331 .294
2020 1.66 45.7% 31.3% 88.0 11.5% 45.0% .270 .271 .476 .489 .364 .370
2021 1.02 38.7% 44.6% 89.0 11.6% 40.8% .284 .258 .497 .465 .378 .361

Taylor’s current average exit velocity is a career high, but it ranks in just the 46th percentile, and his hard-hit rate is in the 49th. His barrel rate ranks in the 77th percentile for the second year in a row, even as he’s become the poster boy for the Dodgers’ “barrels are overrated” shaking-hands gesture.

Two other things stand out here. First, Taylor’s outstanding speed (88th percentile for the third straight season) has routinely helped him outdo his xSLG and xwOBA, with last year the only time in the past five seasons he failed to do so. Second, after setting a career high in groundball rate last year, Taylor is back to hitting the ball in the air with greater frequency, and what’s more, he’s pulling the ball more than ever. When he pulls a fly ball, he’s slugging with the big boys:

Highest wRC+ on Pulled Fly Balls
Player Tm PA HR AVG SLG wRC+
Cesar Hernandez CLE 18 11 .722 2.667 812
José Abreu CHW 18 12 .706 2.824 799
Shohei Ohtani LAA 24 14 .708 2.625 799
Bryce Harper PHI 18 11 .765 2.824 783
Ryan McMahon COL 16 10 .688 2.625 748
Fernando Tatis Jr. SDP 26 16 .720 2.640 746
Brandon Belt SFG 16 8 .688 2.500 729
Chris Taylor LAD 19 12 .632 2.526 724
Yasmani Grandal CHW 15 9 .600 2.400 708
Seth Brown OAK 18 10 .611 2.333 697
Kyle Schwarber WSN 18 11 .647 2.588 692
Lourdes Gurriel Jr. TOR 17 8 .647 2.235 676
Jared Walsh LAA 21 12 .571 2.286 668
Freddie Freeman ATL 17 9 .647 2.294 666
Kris Bryant CHC 16 8 .625 2.250 650
Max Muncy LAD 19 10 .579 2.211 629
Justin Turner LAD 15 7 .600 2.133 616
Adolis García TEX 20 10 .550 2.100 612
Jesse Winker CIN 19 8 .632 2.105 612
Yan Gomes WSN 15 7 .600 2.133 610
Minimum 15 pulled fly balls.

That’s 12 homers on 19 pulled fly balls for Taylor; the latter is three short of his high, set in 2018. For the 2017-20 period, pulled fly balls accounted for 5.6% of Taylor’s batted ball events, on which he hit .500 and slugged 1.887 for a 506 wRC+. This year, such balls account for 8.2% of his batted ball events, and they’ve been more potent, to boot.

The potency of Taylor’s bat is one thing, his versatility another. By Baseball Prospectus’ estimate, the Dodgers have lost more value to the Injured List (about 7.6 WARP) than any team this season except the Mets. Seager has played just 37 games due to a broken right hand, Cody Bellinger 43 games due to a broken fibula and a hamstring strain, and Betts 82 games due to a variety of injuries. Muncy and middle infielder Gavin Lux have each served a stint on the IL as well. Through all of their injuries, Taylor has been the constant despite having no fixed address. He leads the team in games played (96) and in starts at second base (32), ranks second in starts in center field (33), and has made 15 starts at shortstop, five in left field, and two at third base.

This is the fourth season out of five in which Taylor has played at least 10 games at four different positions; he was on pace to do so last year, with 20 games at shortstop, 19 in left field, 13 at second, and six in center (plus six at DH). He’s put together some of the most valuable seasons of any player who bounces around so much. Using Baseball Reference’s Stathead, I pulled together all of the Wild Card-era seasons in which a player made at least 10 appearances at four or more positions, at least one of which was a middle infield position. Here’s the leaderboard in terms of bWAR:

Most Valuable Supertilitymen, 1995-2021
Player Tm Year PA bWAR Pos
Josh Harrison PIT 2014 550 5.6 5794
Martín Prado ATL 2012 690 5.4 7564
Jeff McNeil NYM 2019 567 5.0 7945
Joey Wendle TBR 2018 545 4.9 4576
Melvin Mora BAL 2003 413 4.7 7986
Melvin Mora BAL 2002 652 4.7 7684
Chris Taylor LAD 2017 568 4.4 8746
Ben Zobrist TBR 2014 654 4.4 4769
Chris Taylor LAD 2018 604 4.3 6874
Frank Catalanotto TEX 2001 512 4.3 7945
Marwin Gonzalez HOU 2017 515 3.9 76345
Ryan Freel CIN 2004 592 3.9 59847
Chone Figgins LAA 2005 720 3.9 5847
David Fletcher LAA 2019 653 3.6 5467
Randy Velarde NYY 1995 432 3.5 4675
Enrique Hernández LAD 2018 462 3.5 84697
Chris Taylor LAD 2021 387 3.5 4867
F.P. Santangelo MON 1996 467 3.3 8759
Omar Infante ATL 2010 506 3.1 4567
Willie Harris WSN 2008 424 2.9 7845
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
Minimum 10 games played at four or more positions in a single season. Positions listed in descending order of games played.

A small handful of players have had better seasons than Taylor’s best in this context, but sustaining that level of performance was another matter. Taylor has three of the top 20 seasons of the period, while many of the others either couldn’t replicate their performances or eventually gained more stability by playing fewer positions. Mora had two of the best seasons of the bunch, after which the Orioles rewarded him by making him their regular third baseman; he totaled 9.9 bWAR over his next two years. Figgins eventually became a regular third baseman and turned in a monster 7.7 WAR season in 2009 (let’s forget what happened after that). Hamilton and McNeil gravitated towards regular gigs at second base. Gonzalez and Hernández had other solid seasons while moving around but none up to their previous standards, though the latter — who was announced as the AL’s Player of the Week alongside Taylor — is in the midst of an excellent campaign for the Red Sox. He’s played 65 games in center field, 22 at second base, and five at shortstop while compiling 3.5 bWAR (but just 2.3 fWAR).

In terms of players who had three good seasons while playing at least four positions, Freel is worth a special mention. He upped the ante by playing at least 10 games at five different positions, and followed his 3.9-WAR 2004 campaign with seasons that just missed my display cutoff, with 2.6 in 2005 and 2.7 in ’06.

One other name that sticks out on the list is that of Zobrist, who made his name in Tampa Bay after current Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman, then the Rays’ executive VP of baseball operations, acquired the former sixth-round pick from the Astros in July 2006. Though he had the occasional off season, Zobrist excelled as a multi-position regular for a decade, averaging 4.6 bWAR (4.5 fWAR) from 2009-18, generally while swinging between second base and right field with occasional detours to the other infield positions. Only in 2010 and ’14 did he make at least 10 appearances at four positions; in the former year, center field and first base were the other two positions. I deliberately excluded first base from my Stathead queries, as it increased the number of possible four-position combinations from 15 to 35, more than I could keep track of manually. His 4.6 bWAR in that 2010 season is worth noting, however, as is his compiling five seasons of at least 3.4 bWAR while making at least 10 appearances at three positions.

Indeed, particularly while being overseen by an analytically-minded front office that places extra emphasis on versatility, Taylor and other multi-position regulars are walking in Zobrist’s footsteps. That Taylor is able to spread himself around so much while maintaining a high level of play is an often-overlooked reason for the Dodgers’ success during his time with the team. He truly puts the super in superutilityman.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
2 years ago

Somebody’s got an Eric Carle bedtime story stuck in his head 😉