The Pirates Have a New Ace

The Pittsburgh Pirates traded two of their best players over the winter, signaling a potential rebuild and teardown of the team that made the playoff three consecutive seasons from 2013 to 2015. Andrew McCutchen, the organization’s most recognizable figure since Barry Bonds left town, was the more notable of the departing pair in terms of significance to the franchise. In terms of value in the the near future, however, Gerrit Cole was almost certainly more important.

Not only is Cole likely to produce more wins than McCutchen in a vacuum this season, but the disparity in talent between him and his replacements is also larger. While McCutchen is worth roughly a half-win more than Corey Dickerson and Corey Dickerson’s platoon partners, Cole is expected to outpace the fifth spot in the Pittsburgh rotation by at least two wins. This is the trouble with trading away a No. 1 starter: he’s replaced not by the pitcher right behind him on the depth chart but rather by whichever name formerly occupied the sixth spot in the rotation. For the Pirates, that’s probably some combination of Steven Brault, Tyler Glasnow, and maybe Trevor Williams.

So, in terms of overall wins, the Cole trade is almost certainly a net-minus for the Pittsburgh rotation. That said, it’s very likely that there will be no deficit for the club at the very front of the starting five. Despite Cole’s departure, an ace still remains in Pittsburgh. In light both of his track record and his first two starts of the current season, Jameson Taillon seems very capable of taking over for the departed Cole.

Consider the following statistics for Taillon and Cole over the last two seasons.

Jameson Taillon and Gerrit Cole: 2016-2017
Jameson Taillon 43 237.2 20.9 % 6.3 % 3.98 3.58 4.6
Gerrit Cole 54 319.0 21.7 % 6.7 % 4.12 3.81 5.6

Between 2016 and -17, Cole and Taillon recorded early identical walk and strikeout rates. While the former compiled more innings during this two-year period, the latter boasted the better FIP and ERA.

If Taillon’s innings total here is lower, that’s due partly to the 10 Triple-A starts he made in 2016, during which interval he posted an ERA and FIP around 2.00. While that might seem like a wasted performance, the Pirates’ logic for keeping Taillon in the minors was sound: the right-hander had just lost all of the 2014 and -15 campaigns to a combination of Tommy John surgery and hernia, and it made sense to let him face professional batters without the pressures of pitching for a likely playoff contender. Still, it’s not unreasonable to think he would have fared pretty well in the majors during that time.

Taillon, of course, also missed time last season recovering from surgery for cancer. And even when he struggled in the second half — he produced a 5.96 ERA after the Break — the struggles were largely superficial. His FIP in the first half was 3.51; in the second half, it was actually better (3.45). The culprit was a .375 BABIP.

The presence of merely bad luck as opposed to an erosion of skill is also supported by the Statcast numbers. Taillon’s expected wOBA in the first half last season was .314, with his actual wOBA lining up rather neatly at .318. In the second half, however, his expected wOBA was an even better .307, while his actual wOBA was considerably higher, at .354. Taillon was allowing more runs later in the season, but he pitched just as well as he had during a solid first half. There was little reason to suspect that his bad luck would carry over into this season, and so far it hasn’t.

Taillon has made two starts this season. In his first one, against the Twins, Taillon pitched 5.1 innings, striking out nine, walking none, and gave up a solo homer with one out to Brian Dozier in the sixth inning. It was a solid first start, and he did one better in his most recent appearance — in this case, against the Reds. Versus Cincinnati, Taillon threw a one-hit shutout, striking out seven, and walking just two batters.

Taillon’s success last season and so far in the early going of the 2018 campaign appears to be the result — at least, in part — of of his advanced command. As of yesterday afternoon, he led the majors with eight called third strikes, including five on Sunday against the Reds. As the table below indicates, this was also a big part of his game last year .

Most Called Third Strikes as a Percentage of Strikeouts in 2017
Player % Called Third Strike Ks K% BB%
Jhoulys Chacin 44.4% 20.0% 9.4%
Jesse Chavez 39.5% 17.8% 8.3%
Trevor Bauer 34.7% 26.1% 8.0%
Derek Holland 34.6% 16.5% 11.8%
Matt Moore 33.8% 18.8% 8.6%
Gio Gonzalez 33.5% 22.7% 9.6%
Kyle Hendricks 33.3% 21.6% 7.0%
Nick Pivetta 32.9% 24.0% 9.8%
Jameson Taillon 32.8% 21.3% 7.8%
Michael Fulmer 32.5% 16.9% 5.9%
Jose Quintana 31.9% 26.2% 7.7%
Charlie Morton 31.3% 26.4% 8.1%
Pitchers with at least 100 K in 2017.

Jhoulys Chacin, whose name appears as the top of this particular leaderboard, relies on his slider to freeze batters. Most of the other pitchers here, like Jose Quintana and Trevor Bauer, tend get hitters looking with fastballs. Taillon is unique in that he uses a curveball to catch batters looking. Taillon got 28 strikeouts last season on curveballs taken in the zone. Only Jerad Eickhoff had more, recording 29, and no other pitcher tallied more than 20.

The prospect of facing Taillon’s mid- to upper-90s fastball forces hitters to prepare for heat. As a result, they are often left frozen by a breaking ball. That was last season, anyway. So far this year, all eight of Taillon’s strike threes have come on the fastball. Taillon isn’t necessarily fooling batters. He’s just painting.

The chart below, from Baseball Savant, documents the pitches Taillon has thrown on either the first pitch of an at-bat or when the batter is ahead.

There are a lot of pitches in the strike zone here, or just off the corner. Last season, Taillon used his curve to freeze hitters. He’s still doing the same thing this year, except he’s utilizing the pitch to get ahead or even if he’s behind. The graph below shows just the curveballs on the first pitch or when behind.

Batters aren’t swinging at a curveball on the first pitch or when they are ahead, but Taillon can consistently throw the pitch for strikes, so he’s taking advantage.

Here’s what Taillon’s pitches look like when he gets ahead of the batter:

The above chart is an example of what good command looks like. Command isn’t about throwing strikes but rather locating the ball in a particular spot. When Taillon gets ahead in the count, he rarely throws the ball near the middle of the strike zone. Look at all those green dots at the top of the strike zone, for example; those are four-seam fastballs designed to invite batters to chase. Now look at all those light blue dots below the strike zone; those are curveballs, but different types of curves than the ones noted above. While those in the chart above were designed to steal called strikes, these are intended to invite swings and misses. There are also a bunch of curves and changeups on the edge of the strike zone. Most of the two-seamers are low in the zone or below it. Those are pitches that will get swings and ground balls.

Jameson Taillon throws his fastball over 95 mph and knows exactly where it’s going. He throws curveballs to different locations depending on the desired outcome. He throws his change in just about the same place every time. Taillon doesn’t have great strikeout rates, but he doesn’t walk many batters and gets a decent amount of ground balls. That sounds an awful lot like the formula employed by Gerrit Cole en route to a fourth-place finish in the Cy Young voting. Taillon might not have been the Pirates’ nominal ace when Cole was around, but he pitched just as well or better than his former teammate the past few seasons. He seems well prepared to take up the mantle of ace for the currently first-place Pittsburgh Pirates.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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5 years ago

While Taillon and Cole were certainly more similar last year then we would expect, and I certainly find the current analysis convincing that Taillon is breaking out.

But to say that Taillon and Cole are at the same level using data this year…aside from the small sample problems, if we’re going to do a small-sample analysis of Taillon’s performance this year and say he’s just as good as Cole, we should probably do the same for Cole.

Taillon: 0.4 fWAR over 14 innings, which is the equivalent of 5.6 fWAR over 200 innings. Pretty good stuff.

Cole: 0.7 fWAR over 14 innings, which is the equivalent of 9.8 fWAR over 200 innings.

Of course, the Top 10 pitchers list currently includes Jordan Zimmerman and Ian Kennedy, so even if we didn’t know we were in small-sample territory already we should by now.

Joe Joemember
5 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Yep. My thought when reading this was if Taillon replaces Cole, who replaces Taillon?

Pirates Hurdles
5 years ago
Reply to  Joe Joe

Well the hope is that Musgrove turns into that #2-3. Projections sure like him, but his nebulous shoulder issues are terrifying to me.

5 years ago

I think pretty much every team has a guy with big league experience that they hope turns into a #2-#3. Here’s a partial list:

Tyler Mahle, Dinelson Lamet, Daniel Mengden (actually, the A’s whole rotation), Joe Musgrove, Jack Flaherty, Luke Weaver, Josh Hader, Walker Buehler, Luiz Gohara, Jeff Hoffman, Nick Pivetta, Vince Velazquez, Lucas Giolito, Eduardo Rodriguez…

These guys have a lot of hope pinned on them that may or may not be justified.

5 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

This is an odd list with Flarhety, Hader, Gohara and Bueheler. They haven’t really had that shot yet, like Weaver, Velazquez and Giolito types have.

Joe Joemember
5 years ago

I almost added “Musgrove?”. I think Musgrove will be fine starter long term, but more on the back end of the rotation.