In Committing to Chicago, Jameson Taillon Provides Cubs (and Himself) an Upgrade

Jameson Taillon
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

We’re now in the thick of the annual Winter Meetings, and we saw a handful of free-agent starters fly off the board on Tuesday. First, Andrew Heaney signed with the Rangers. Then the insatiable Phillies gobbled up Taijuan Walker. And before an eventful day came to a close, the Cubs finally opened their wallet by inking Jameson Taillon to a four-year deal worth $68 million.

This has been a player-friendly market, and one that’s been particularly rewarding to starting pitchers. All three listed above tore through their crowdsourced contract estimates and Ben Clemens’ own: Heaney got not one but two years with an opt-out; Walker beat his projected contract total by $30 million; and Taillon also exceeded expectations by a similar margin. It’s clear teams have been willing to spend, but it’s also evidence of just how scarce starting pitching is nowadays. There’s nary a pitcher who can carry the burden of 200-plus innings, so the 170–180 mark seems like the new gold standard. Heaney’s appeal lies in his upside, not durability, but you could count on Walker and Taillon to provide a full season’s worth of starts.

The Cubs needed a rotation stalwart. That their most reliable starter last season was Marcus Stroman, who recorded a 3.50 ERA across 138.2 frames, isn’t great news. Late-bloomer Justin Steele had the best rate statistics, but he’ll probably only see a minor increase to his workload. Kyle Hendricks is on the last year of his contract and well past his prime, and counting on Adrian Sampson for a second season would be most unwise. Chicago has a couple of pitching prospects on their way, and Hayden Wesneski looked promising in his first big league forays. But as always, the issue is innings, innings, innings. The Cubs would most definitely prefer to protect their young starters and test their potential in abbreviated outings. Taillon is the big brother who can absorb the second and third times through an order.

If you look at Taillon’s career as a whole, you’ll find that he’s been a consistent third or fourth starter throughout. But really, it can be split into two parts: as a Pirate (2016–19) and as a Yankee (’21–22), punctuated by Tommy John surgery and a period of rehabilitation. In Pittsburgh, he was a sinkerballer, as most Pirates starters were back in those days. He generated an above-average rate of groundballs and held a below-average rate of home runs, and the combination worked. In the Bronx, he reinvented himself as a four-seam fastball-and-cutter guy. That effectively turned him into a fly ball pitcher, which helped him earn outs via popups instead. But it also gave way to a home run problem, which might have been exacerbated by the confines of Yankee Stadium.

So which version of Taillon is better? It’s hard to say. The reason why his whole career isn’t characterized by peaks and valleys, at least on the surface, is because the sinker-first version and the four-seam/cutter-first version have returned more or less the same results. He’s also more than just the fastball he prefers; his current arsenal features six distinct pitches, and there’s no offering that’s clearly better (or worse) than the others. “Throw your best pitch more often” is good advice, but one not applicable to Taillon. There have been many attempts to mold him into an ideal pitcher; none have been particularly successful. It’s anyone guess what the Cubs have in mind, and he gives them plenty to work with, but the best solution might be not to adjust anything at all. They don’t need him to shake up his pitch mix drastically, and they don’t need him to be an ace. Left alone, he likely puts up a season they expect of him.

What we do know is that going from Yankee Stadium to Wrigley Field is a huge upgrade for a pitcher like Taillon. The overall park factor for each venue, as calculated by Baseball Savant, is similar. But what sets them apart is their home run factor: 113 for Yankee Stadium and 99 for Wrigley Field, on a scale where 100 is average. It doesn’t exactly work like this, but converting a few of the home runs he allowed into outs lowers his ERA by a pretty good amount. Fewer home runs equal fewer runs, which equal lengthier starts. Now, I don’t think we should slap on a major improvement to his projections because of a change of scenery, but the general idea stands. Barring some rotten luck or a notable decline in either stuff or command, he shouldn’t allow as many home runs as he did last season.

Speaking of command, that’s Taillon’s greatest strength. The man throws strikes! He also elicits a surprising number of swings outside the zone for someone without overpowering stuff, meaning he can turn balls into strikes more often than the average pitcher. In particular, I want to point out his walk rate of just 4.4% last season, which tied him for fourth-best among qualified pitchers. (The two others he tied with? Max Fried and Justin Verlander.) There’s no clearly superior pitch in Taillon’s repertoire, but in the context of his strong command, that’s a strength. On most days, he is in control of six different average to above-average pitches. That’s more than a majority of pitchers can handle, and it’s why he ranked as a middle-class free agent despite not having the cleanest statistical resume.

In fact, if not for a lukewarm contract year, it isn’t hard to imagine Taillon netting himself an even greater deal. Walker helped set the market, and we can use him as a point of comparison. Up until 2021, Taillon comes out on top with a lower ERA and a cleaner slate of health. But last season is when they diverged: Taillon had merely a decent year, but Walker matched a career-high in WAR (2.5). The Phillies being gigantic spenders is a factor, definitely, but the difference in their respective contract years seems like the difference between their respective paydays. There’s an argument to be made that Taillon has been the better pitcher, and that he’ll continue to outpace Walker in the future as well. Even before yesterday’s bonanza, Steamer gave him the upper hand in terms of innings pitched and runs allowed. Taillon is moving from a bad park for home run prevention to a good one; Walker is moving from an excellent park for home run prevention to a terrible one.

The point isn’t to belittle Walker, but that the Cubs got excellent value out of this deal. Based on Walker’s agreement with the Phillies, it wouldn’t have been strange to see a team fork over $80 million for Taillon. Instead, Chicago now has arguably the better starter of the two at a discounted price. Maybe his market didn’t really develop, or maybe he preferred the Cubs for personal reasons. Whatever the case, from a team perspective, this is a good first step. It’d be disappointing if he were the Cubs’ only addition this offseason, but I don’t think they’re done spending yet. Three of the four big-name shortstops are still up for grabs, and there’s reason to believe they are gunning for one of them. But first, they needed someone to hold the rotation together. Taillon happened to fit the bill.

Justin is a contributor at FanGraphs. His previous work can be found at Prospects365 and Dodgers Digest. His less serious work can be found on Twitter @justinochoi.

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1 year ago

As long as you know what to expect (bulkish league-average innings, with the occasional flash start where he looks unhittable), you’d be completely satisified with this contract, especially given the aggressive spending on SP thus far.

Both of his Yankee seasons were exactly 100 ERA+ by bRef’s accounting. There’s certainly value in dependability.

Last edited 1 year ago by sandwiches4ever
1 year ago

This is not a player who’s exactly been dependable from a health standpoint, super nice guy though he is.

1 year ago
Reply to  wokegraphs

His injuries largely boil down to 2 TJs and cancer. Outside of that, he’s been quite reliable.

In 2016, he was called up at the beginning of June and made 18 starts the rest of the way. He made 25 starts in the season where he was diagnosed and had emergency surgery for cancer. He made 32, 29, and 32 starts in his other full three seasons.

He’s been about as durable as can be expected from a pitcher in this era.

1 year ago
Reply to  wokegraphs

He’s had two straight healthy years with no arm injuries after changing his mechanics during his rehab. That’s enough for a lot of teams, esp since his other injuries were TJS and cancer.