When the Yankees acquired Jameson Taillon from the Pirates in January, there was a familiar ring to the trade. Whether Michael Pineda, Nathan Eovaldi, Sonny Gray, or James Paxton, the Yankees have long made a habit of trading for pitchers who are strong, talented, but are one step away from true star status. Coming off injury and having pitched for the Pirates, Taillon fits that same mold.
This approach has yielded mixed results in the past and that’s been true for Taillon thus far. In 7 starts coming into today, he has a 5.73 ERA and a 4.67 FIP. To an extent, perhaps even a big one, this is excusable.
Not only is Taillon coming off (another) Tommy John Surgery, but he’s also adjusting to a completely different philosophy of pitching. The former alone is hard enough to come back from, let alone the shift from the Pirates’ pitch-to-contact strategy to the Yankees’ strikeout-focused approach. To boot, he’s also trying out new mechanics. Despite the iffy results around all these changes, there are a lot of process-based positives.
For example, per Taillon’s Statcast “dashboard,” he’s well in the red with his whiff, chase, walk, and strikeout rates. His spin rates are strong, too. All of this indicates that success should be here for Taillon–or should (could?) be soon. So why hasn’t it shown up yet? The answer is up in the air.
So far in 2021, Taillon is sporting a career high 32% fly ball rate. That isn’t just a career high, but a career high by almost 12%. Compounding this issue is his 18.4% HR/FB rate, which, while absurdly high and equally fluky and liable to come down, is still a problem that’s hindered him this year.
Logically, this increase in fly balls has led to a decrease in ground balls. His 36.9% ground ball rate is a career low by about 9%. The change from the Yankees to the Pirates also helps explain this. With Pittsburgh, Taillon was 2-seam heavy, getting lots of grounders that way. With the Yankees, he’s completely ditched the 2-seam fastball in favor of the 4-seam fastball. To boot, he’s working it high in the zone for the sake of strikeouts. Here’s 2021:
This is decidedly higher than the fastball heat map for 2016-2019, years when his ground ball rates on the pitch ranged from the low to mid 30’s. Now, it’s at 27.9%. Similarly, his slider’s ground ball rates have fallen.
In 2018, it clocked in at 48.5%. In 2019, 51.4%. 2021? 38.2%. That’s still decently high, considering his overall ground ball rate, but considerably lower than those last two seasons. This is despite the slider being in textbook location for both whiffs and groundballs:
Taillon’s curveball is still racking up mid-50’s groundball rates, so that’s fine, so that brings us to the oddest thing about this year. Taillon’s changeup has a 0% ground ball rate. Like the slider, this is somewhat baffling, because the pitch is mostly being thrown in good location for grounders:
Changeups in that location should lead to grounders (when contact is made), but if we look at that map more closely, there’s a decent amount of pitches in the middle (which may get hit hard!) and a decent amount below the zone. What seems to be happening is that batters are not chasing that low changeup (22% chase rate on the pitch, his lowest among all four) and it’s not getting the whiffs or grounders it could be. This pitch also has, somehow, his highest FB% at 50, followed by the slider at 44.1, the fastball at 30, and the curve at 16.
This speaks to the rise in fly balls and, perhaps, the rise in home runs. He’s given up eight thus far. Six have come on fastballs, two on changeups, and one on sliders. Let’s focus on the six for a second, especially because the change in fastball type has been a focus for Taillon since he was acquired.
As Randy, Jaime, and I noted–and as you’ll see in that heat map above–at times, Taillon his having trouble getting his fastball above the hitting zone. This could be leading to the fly balls and, in particular, the home runs. Here’s his wOBA by zone chart for 2021 fastballs:
When Taillon doesn’t elevate the fastball enough or get it to one of the corners up in the zone, he gets hammered. Look at that middle-up zone. .798 wOBA! He’s certainly getting the pitch up in the zone, but when he doesn’t get it high enough up, he’s paying for it dearly.
Whenever a pitcher tries something new, there’s going to be bumps in the road. This is even more true for a pitcher coming off injury, as well as changing teams and leagues. While the results haven’t been perfect yet, there are enough good signs in Taillon’s performance–especially the whiff and walk rates–that I think he’ll figure this high-fastball thing out. Once he gets used to doing it and locates it better–command is always slow to come after a long injury layoff–he’ll be just fine.