Michael Taylor Gives the Nationals Multiple Options

Going into the 2017 season, the Washington Nationals would have been right to view their outfield as a strength. With Bryce Harper already present in right, the front office traded a pair of highly prized pitching prospects to add Adam Eaton, as well. The acquisition had the benefit of sending Trea Turner to his natural shortstop position, filling another of the Nationals’ holes. Jayson Werth could still be counted on as the weak side of a platoon, and there were bench bats who could otherwise fill in.

Not many people were talking about Michael Taylor at that point — and rightfully so. He’d dealt with a demotion to Triple-A the year prior in order to iron out his swing, and he was increasingly looking like a prospect who’d failed to live up to expectations. Mark Zuckerman of MASN Sports speculated that he was “at best looking at a spot on the bench” alongside Chris Heisey and Adam Lind.

Things changed quickly on April 30th. General manager Mike Rizzo announced that Adam Eaton would be out for the year after stepping awkwardly on first base while legging out an infield single. Suddenly, the Nationals would be leaning much more heavily on Michael Taylor. He responded very well, putting up three-plus wins over the course of the season, with above-average offense and defense in center field. His emergence not only helped push the Nationals to a playoff spot, but now gives them valuable flexibility heading into 2018.

Washington had been waiting on Taylor since 2015, when he was a top-50 prospect ready to take over the starting center-field role. He was expected to offer above-average defense and a tantalizing power-speed offensive profile. That first year didn’t go so well at the plate: Taylor put up a 69 wRC+, albeit with strong defense in the outfield. That second year saw Taylor become a part-time player and, later, a minor-league demotee, putting his career in doubt.

Something clearly had to change, and it seems like something did change for Taylor. To identify what exactly changed requires a little digging beyond the surface-level results. Going into 2017, Taylor had struggled with plate discipline, posting low walk rates (6.8% and 5.9%, respectively) and high strikeout rates (30.9% and 32.5%) in 2015 and 2016. Nor did this change in 2017: Taylor put up walk and strikeout rates (6.7% and 31.7%, respectively) nearly identical to his career averages. The background numbers back this up, too: his swing rate (48.9%), chase rate (30.2%), and contact rate (68.9%) all fall right in line with his career rates.

Michael Taylor and Plate Discipline
Season BB% K% O-Swing% Swing% Contact% SwStr%
2015 6.8% 30.9% 33.3% 52.4% 68.8% 16.0%
2016 5.9% 32.5% 28.5% 48.5% 70.1% 14.5%
2017 6.7% 31.7% 30.2% 49.1% 68.9% 15.2%
Career 6.6% 31.8% 31.3% 50.2% 69.0% 15.4%

Having established that Taylor’s discipline didn’t change, we have to assume that Taylor’s improvements were a result of the contact he made — specifically, doing more damage on contact. The results strongly suggest this, as Taylor jumped from a .134 ISO in 2015-2016 to .216 in 2017. Looking at the Statcast, we see that the fly-ball revolution may count Taylor among its membership.

Michael Taylor and Fly Balls
Season Avg Launch Speed Avg Launch Angle GB/FB ISO
2015 84.9 8.8 1.45 .129
2016 81.3 11.8 1.48 .145
2017 82.7 13.7 1.17 .210

Taylor has not (to my knowledge) made any statements regarding the addition of more uppercut to his swing. In fact, he suggested in May that his swing tended to get long when concentrating on home runs, that he was “taking [his] singles and look[ing] for [his] pitch.” So maybe Taylor hasn’t changed his swing plane consciously and has just happened to up his launch angle and fly-ball rate. Or maybe he listened to John Lowenstein, an Orioles outfielder from 35 years ago who once observed that “they’ve got fences out there and they let you run around the bases for free if you hit it over the wall. So obviously you should be swinging slightly up.”

This emergence of Michael Taylor has major implications for the Nationals going forward. A player with excellent defense and supbar offense (a generous characterization of Taylor in 2015 and 2016) is a fourth outfielder or a second-division starter. Pair that excellent defense with even league-average offense, however, and you have a reliable starter for most any team. From a financial perspective, a starter-level Michael Taylor gives the Nationals many more options on how they spend their money. His emergence allows the team to focus their financial resources on areas outside the outfield, such as finding a more permanent solution to their bullpen problems.

Taylor’s emergence also has the potential to affect the Nationals’ plans for the development of their prospects. Victor Robles is a blu- chip prospect, possibly the top prospect in all of baseball. He would seem to be the heir apparent to center field in Washington, but Taylor’s presence allows the franchise to delay Robles’ promotion until the Super Two deadline has passed, a practice common to all teams.

Even if Robles does take on an everyday role in 2018, Taylor remains an asset to the Nationals in a couple of ways. His defensive abilities and natural speed would seem to make him an ideal defensive replacement, pinch-runner, or generally a fourth outfielder even if his offense regresses a little. However, if his 2017 offensive profile is the new norm, Taylor becomes possibly the most overqualified fourth outfielder in baseball. On the other hand, the Nationals could possibly trade him rather than relegating him to a part-time role. Several teams competing for the postseason (the Brewers and Orioles) come to mind) would decidedly view Taylor as an upgrade to their current options in center field.

FInally, the spectre of Bryce Harper’s impending free agency hangs over the 2018 season for the Nationals franchise. Every decision that Mike Rizzo and the front office makes will have to account for the distinct possibility that Harper is playing elsewhere in 2019 and beyond. While Taylor can’t replace Harper’s production (it would be ridiculous to suggest that he could), he can at least soften the potential loss. When teams lose a starter of Harper’s caliber, very rarely do they have a player with Taylor’s 2017 production already on the roster and possibly on the bench. Taylor at least allows the Nationals to have a semblance of a plan for a potentially Harper-less world.

Of course, this is all assuming Taylor can keep up his 2017 production. As mentioned, his plate discipline remains a concern. Moreover, his BABIP was on the high side in 2017, and we have yet to see if the results from his increased fly-ball rate are sustainable. But regardless of whether Taylor remains a mainstay for the Nationals or is traded to make room for Robles, the Nationals have a valuable asset on their hands that gives them the flexibility to compete now, plan for the future, or cash in on an asset that seemed pretty depreciated at the start of 2017.

Stephen Loftus is a Visiting Assistant Professor in Mathematical Sciences at Sweet Briar College in Virginia. In his spare time he usually can be found playing the pipe organ or working on his rambling sabermetric thoughts.

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Category headings appear to be reversed on his K% and BB%