Taylor Williams is a tad shorter than the 5-foot-11 he’s listed at in the Milwaukee media guide. But as the saying goes, size doesn’t matter. His fastball averaged 96.1 mph, and ticked up even higher, in his 2018 rookie season. More importantly, he consistently recorded outs. In 56 appearances out of the Brewers bullpen, Williams fanned 57 batters in 53 innings, and fashioned a 3.95 FIP. All in all, it was a successful campaign for the 27-year-old right-hander who hails from Camas, Washington.
He faced a speed bump on his way to Beer City. Seemingly on the fast track after a stellar first-full professional season, the 2013 fourth round pick suddenly began feeling elbow discomfort. Rest didn’t help, nor did a platelet-rich plasma injection. He underwent Tommy John surgery and missed all of the 2015 and 2016 seasons.
He barely missed a beat after returning to action. Williams pitched well enough at Double-A Biloxi to earn a five-game cameo with the Brewers in September 2017. Then came last season’s further step forward, which portends a continuation of what could arguably be called a David-slays-Goliath career.
The undersized — but by no means underperforming — hurler discussed his path to the big leagues midway through last summer.
Williams on being drafted out of Kent State: “I was originally at Washington State, but decided that I didn’t want to go back. This was after after my freshman year. I transferred to Mount Hood Community College, in Oregon, in part because I didn’t want to have to sit out a season. I finished my associates degree at Mount Hood, then transferred to Kent State.
“I’d played summer ball with some Kent State guys after my freshman year. That was up in the New England Collegiate Baseball League. The team I was with played out of Keene, New Hampshire. The NECBL is a good league. Our All-Star team actually beat Team USA that year.
“Another reason for going to a junior college was the possibility of getting drafted after my sophomore season. I thought there was a chance of that happening, but it ended up not happening. There was a little bit of an opportunity to sign a free agent deal, but my family and I decided that it was in my best interest to spend my junior season at Kent State. I played one year there, then got drafted by the Brewers.”
On turning the page: “Up until my junior year, I had it in the back of my head that I was a position player. I’d always played a position growing up. I was a decent hitter and could play all over the field. I played all over the field when I was in junior college.
“I knew that I was undersized for a pitcher, but I also knew that I had ability. It was just a matter of putting everything together. The pitching coach at Kent State was part of the reason I transferred there. Working with Mike Birkbeck — he actually pitched for the Brewers — is what really turned the page for me. He helped me develop into a pitcher, as opposed to a guy who was athletic and had the ability to throw hard.
“I think I topped out at 93 in high school. From there it was kind of an upward progression the summer after my freshman year of college. I started to get up to 95-96 a little bit. Junior college, same thing. After that, I closed in the West Coast League, which is a college summer league.”
On generating power: “Being a Northwest guy, I kind of modeled the way I throw after how Tim Lincecum threw. I try to generate a lot of power from my lower body in the same way he used his lower body. I come from a little lower arm slot than he did, but I definitely liked to watch and learn from him.
“I think my velocity increase came from a mixture of learning how to use my body more efficiently and lifting weights a little more. My sophomore and junior years, I got more into strength and conditioning. I realized the importance of doing that in order to get the most out of my body on the mound.”
On training smarter: “Coming back from TJ, I gained an even better understanding of how my body works. I’ve always been mobile, and like I said, I’d already been working on my strength and conditioning. But in my first couple years of pro ball, I focused too much on putting on size and getting stronger. I should have focused more on staying mobile and athletic.
“A big thing baseball is moving towards, from a strength and conditioning standpoint, is injury prevention. A lot of what we’re doing now in the weight room, and the training room, is geared toward that. That was a lot of what I learned throughout my rehab process — how to take care of myself in a better way.”
On gaining a mental edge: “There’s the old saying that baseball is 20 percent physical and 80 percent mental. However you want to break up that percentage, I’m a big believer in the mental side of pitching. A lot of people say that once you get to the Double-A level, the ability of the players is close to that of the big leagues. To me, the separator is your mental capabilities on the field. It’s a different stage when you go from Double-A Biloxi to Miller Park. You’re playing in front of 30,000 people, and the expectations are higher. In reality, it’s the same game, but at the same time, it isn’t.
“You can look at someone’s [lack of] height and say it doesn’t allow him to create as much downward angle, or whatever. But what a lot of pitching is — this isn’t talked about nearly enough — is mental. A lot of people have the ability to throw a baseball 95 mph, and some of them get it turned around. The best pitchers are the ones who can go out and execute their pitches with that authority, that mental edge. Being five-ten-and-a-half doesn’t prevent me from going out there and beating hitters.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.