Jameson Taillon’s Remarkable Return

Of late, the Pittsburgh Pirates have been remarkable in a rather disappointing way. On May 27, the club was 28-19 and had a 43.7% chance of making the playoffs. Two weeks later, after a sweep at the hands of the St. Louis Cardinals, Dave Cameron cast considerable doubt on the Pirates’ ability to compete this season. Now, after four weeks and a 6-20 stretch, the team’s playoff odds are down to 2.7% in what figures to be a very competitive wild-card race.

Despite the disappointments of June, the Pirates continue to possess a very good, very young core in the form of Gerrit Cole, Starling Marte, and Gregory Polanco. That group provides an opportunity to stay competitive in a way most small-market franchises have found incredibly difficult. The emergence of Jameson Taillon can only help those fortunes going forward.

Still just 24 years old, it would be reasonable to assume that Taillon has been taking a fairly standard path to the big leagues, continuing to move up the ranks as he gets older and has more success. That has not been the case, however. Taillon was actually fairly close to the majors three years ago, at 21 years of age, reaching Triple-A in 2013, with a reasonable expectation of finding his way to Pittsburgh the following season. He was consistently ranked among the top 20 or so prospects since having been drafted with the second-overall pick in 2010.

That 2014 season didn’t go as planned, however, and Taillon underwent Tommy John surgery in April of 2014. A solid rehab and recovery would have put him back on the mound sometime in the middle of last season. While trying to ramp up for the rest of the season, Taillon then had surgery for a hernia, recovery from which kept him out the rest of the season. When he headed back to Triple-A this year, he had not made a competitive pitch in over two full seasons. He didn’t look rusty, though, recording 61 strikeouts and just six walks in 61.2 innings of work for Indianapolis. That earned him a promotion to the majors — and, in light of Pittsburgh’s difficulty in finding reliable and healthy starters, his stay in the big leagues should last a while.

Both of his first two starts came against the New York Mets. The first was a positive one: Taillon recorded six innings, conceding three runs despite posting only three strikeouts (to go along with two walks). The next time he got a crack at the Mets, he was much more impressive, taking a no-hitter into the seventh inning, striking out five (against just one walk) and pitching eight shutout innings.

He didn’t follow up that stellar performance with another one. In Taillon’s third major-league appearance, the Cubs hit three home runs and chased him away after just four innings of work. The right-hander did strike out five batters, though, while conceding just one walk. It was the homers that did him in. After three starts, Taillon’s ERA is a decent 3.50 with an ugly 5.40 FIP due to the homers. His xFIP is a more solid 3.71 so assuming he is not a homer-prone pitcher, repeating his current performance should lead to a decent stat line.

What has been impressive thus far has been Taillon’s command. He hasn’t always worked in the strike zone, but seems close enough to it to be effective. He has two fastballs: a four-seamer and a two-seamer. Both pitches come in around 95 mph and the latter should allow Taillon to profile as a ground-ball pitcher in the majors. He also has a good curve and a change he uses less and is still a work-in-progress. Here’s his heat map for all pitches thrown in the majors this year, with data from Baseball Savant.

Jameson Taillon Heatmap (2)

He tends to throw inside to righties and outside to lefties, and for the most part has been very good locating his spots. To explain his effectiveness, it might be more helpful to look at his failures. Let’s begin by considering his matchup against Kris Bryant in the third inning last Sunday. In his first time against Bryant, he struck out the Cubs third baseman on five pitches, getting a swinging strike on a two-seam fastball outside the zone before getting swinging strikes on curves in pitches three and five of the at-bat.

Here’s the curve that got Bryant out:

Next time up, Bryant got ahead in the count 3-0 and, needing a strike, Taillon went with his four-seam fastball, likely the pitch he can command the best. The heat map below shows generally where Taillon has been locating his four-seamer this season:

Jameson Taillon Heatmap (1)

His pitch to Bryant was pretty close, but was perhaps just a bit low, ending up right in Bryant’s wheelhouse.

If he had thrown his two-seamer the exact same way, the ball ends up a bit more inside and a touch lower, probably preventing the damage. Likewise, if he had thrown the four-seamer a bit higher, it’s possible Bryant would not have been able to get around on it.

In the very next at-bat, this effect is even more pronounced. With Anthony Rizzo up to the plate, Taillon threw a curve inside that just missed the bottom of the strike zone. He then came back with a two-seam fastball away. Even with teams loading up on lefties against Taillon so far, we are still dealing with a small sample of pitches. However, this is where Taillon has been throwing his two-seamer against lefties:

Jameson Taillon Heatmap

Those darker areas are a really good spot to throw a two-seam fastball against lefties. It is going to be hard to pull a sinking fastball from there, and it will be difficult to drive the ball to the opposite field. That spot will get a lot of ground balls, and Taillon has been very good at pitching to his spot there. Against Anthony Rizzo he left the ball up.

Similar to the Bryant pitch, if he uses his other fastball, the pitch might catch the outer corner of the plate and be a bit higher, not allowing Rizzo to go with the pitch to the opposite field. If he throws the two-seamer lower, it would also make it difficult for Rizzo to generate the opposite field power necessary to get the ball out of the park.

In his write-up of Taillon following the former’s promotion, Eric Longenhagen was positive, but noted some concerns about Taillon showing the ball too early, taking away some of the potency of the fastball. While that sort of shortcoming might prevent Taillon’s fastballs from playing up more, it shouldn’t matter too much if he locates them. Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo are two of the better hitters in baseball, and they took advantage when Taillon missed his spot. Not all batters will be able to take advantage of the mistakes. For the most part, Taillon has been locating well, a very good sign for him going forward just three starts into a major-league career delayed by a couple years.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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7 years ago

Against the Mets, he was timorous, not challenging in the strike zone until he fell behind in the count. In the next game, he was totally different, frequently pitching backwards (off-speed then fastball), a tactic that is rare for a young pitcher and showed his excellent command.

He had his Triple A catcher against the Cubs, something that the ESPN announcer railed against ad nauseum, and again Taillon was failing to challenge the formidable Cubs hitters early in the count until the fourth innning, when he seemed to pull himself together belatedly. ¨(ËSPN announcer never got his game together, though, so I switched to the Pirates broadcast; ESPN seem to think we all luv the luvable Cubs.)

I think like Urias, Taillon is used to minor league umpires giving him the benefit of the doubt when he is close to the strike zone, and in the majors, the umpires are not giving him that; in fact, the umpire missed quite some strikes that might have changed the outcome in some at bats (as per MLB.COM anyway). But his stuff is too good to be fishing around the edges; he is most effective challenging early, then the hitters widen the strike zone and he is deadly.

formerly matt w
7 years ago
Reply to  BMac

WHy was the ESPN announcer railing against Taillon having his AAA catcher?

If the idea was that the catcher was brought up to babysit Taillon, that’s not the case; the Pirates’ starting catcher (Cervelli) is on the DL and their backup (Stewart) was injured and mostly unable to catch, while their top AAA catcher (Elias Diaz) has been hurt all year. So the Pirates had to bring in every warm body who owns catching gear, in particular Erik Kratz and this guy, who has been sent back down now that Stewart is available.

7 years ago

Exactly, eh? His point was that the inexperience of the pitcher was compounded by the inexperience of the catcher. But as you point out, the Pirates were in a bind. Certainly, it could have worked out differently, since they were effective together in the minors.