July’s American League Pitcher of the Month takes the ball for the Yankees tonight in the rubber game against the Orioles. Who saw that award coming for Jameson Taillon? Especially after that awful June 12th start against the Phillies in which he recorded just one out. At that point, Taillon owned a 5.74 ERA in 12 starts, which was 11th-worst among starters with at least 50 innings pitched. Ever since, the righty has pitched to a 2.28 ERA in his last eight starts coming into tonight. What a turnaround.
The funny thing about Taillon’s ascent is that it’s a bit difficult to point to anything underlying that’s driving his improvement. There’s one obvious difference in terms of results: he’s keeping the ball in the yard much more often. Through that start in Philly, the righty had a 1.69 HR/9 and a 13.7 percent HR/FB. Since, he stands at 1.14 HR/9 and a 9.4 percent HR/FB. That’ll do wonders for the ol’ ERA. Determining how Taillon has cut back on home runs allowed isn’t too obvious, though.
Taillon used to rely heavily on a sinker with Pittsburgh, but eschewed it in the early going with the Yankees. That pitch is back now, and has been used in every start since that disaster against Philadelphia. However, it’s not exactly something he’s prominently utilized. Had he gone sinker-heavy and dropped the high fastball, I think we’d have a fairly clear reason why Taillon’s home run rate dipped. That’s just not the case, though. In fact, his sinker usage seems to be waning again.
He’s used it less than five percent of the time in his last two outings, so it’s really just a show-me offering. Taillon is still relying on the north-south approach that the Yankees molded him into.
The other thing that could result in fewer home runs allowed: more missed bats. More strikeouts and fewer balls in play could be another explanation for Taillon’s better results, and yet, it’s not. In fact, Taillon’s strikeouts are down quite a bit. He fanned 25 percent of hitters through June 12th and 20.7 percent thereafter.
I took a high level look at a few other things, including edge percentage (as a proxy of command), pitch velocity, and movement to see if anything popped. Once again, no. First of all, Taillon isn’t a command guy. He’s just looking to challenge hitters with his four-seamer and then pick up whiffs on his breaking balls downstairs. He’s not throwing any harder than he did earlier this year and his pitches aren’t moving differently. Everything under the hood looks pretty steady.
One thing I hate to resort to in baseball analytics is the luck factor. It’s definitely a thing, but it’s always nice to be able to point to something changing that’s driving an improvement. I just can’t seem to identify anything in particular that’s gotten better for Taillon during his recent hot stretch. At the same time, I’m also not a stats-guru, so there could be something more advanced than my understanding which helps explain things here. In any case, I’m not complaining. It’s great to see Taillon pitch better.
So, about the luck factor, which I’ll begrudgingly fall back on. Take a look at these two charts:
If we take Taillon’s FIP vs. ERA and xwOBA vs. wOBA at face value, it’s pretty clear that the starter is catching up to his estimated performance from earlier this year. His ERA finally caught up to his FIP and his wOBA is inching closer to his expected mark. It’s great to see.
Other good descriptors of luck include BABIP and strand rate. Taillon’s seen a significant improvement in his BABIP (.246) and strand rate (88%) since June 12th, when he had a .317 BABIP and 67.2% strand rate. We’ll probably see some regression in the coming weeks here, but that doesn’t mean Taillon will warp back to his early-season self.
The Yankees really need Taillon to keep up this strong run the rest of the way, and particularly in the short-term. The team has a rotation’s worth of starters on the IL (Gerrit Cole, Jordan Montgomery, Luis Severino, Corey Kluber, and Domingo Germán), making good Taillon essential. Thankfully, that appears to have arrived and hopefully is here to stay. It took some aggravation and patience to get here, but clearly, it’s been worth it.