When Jameson Taillon stepped on the Yankee Stadium mound this past April 7th, it was the first time he had been on a big-league mound in just short of two calendar years. Since he had already proven he could be a good major league pitcher, but also had a lengthy list of health and injury problems, most people around the Yankees weren’t quite sure what to expect. Given that there was such a wide range of possible outcomes, grading his 2021 performance is an interesting discussion.
Let’s keep it simple and start with the bottom line.
2021 Stats: 29 starts, 144.1 IP, 4.30 ERA, 100 ERA+, 2.2 bWAR, 4.43 FIP, 4.43 SIERA.
2022 Contract Status: Third-year arbitration-eligible.
On a base level, Taillon was essentially a league-average pitcher in 2021. Regardless of basic or advanced measurements, and regardless of who was doing the evaluating - Baseball-Reference, FanGraphs, Baseball Prospectus, Baseball Savant, or even you and me with our own eyes - it all comes out the same: Taillon was neither very good nor very bad.
If you want to look at a particular strength or weakness, in Taillon’s case, it might be the same thing. Taillon certainly was aggressive in throwing strikes and going after hitters, posting a better than league average 63 percent first strike percentage and a low walk rate that ranked in the 65th percentile in MLB. That aggression, however, led to plenty of pitches that found the middle of the zone, as the heat maps of his fastball and curveball show.
Heat maps like those will land you in the 19th percentile in max exit velocity and 33rd percentile in hard-hit percentage. Even though I think we’d all agree that being aggressive and throwing strikes is better than the alternative, allowing many hard-hit balls isn’t a good thing.
You might be asking “If Taillon was more or less average, why give him a relatively good grade of B-?” and that would be a fair question. To me, there are two reasons.
First, when evaluating a player, expectations of that player need to be considered and weighed accordingly. If Gerrit Cole posted the numbers above that season would be an abject failure, but if Nick Nelson did we’d be cracking bottles open and clinking glass. With respect to someone who hadn’t pitched in just short of two years, and has had two elbow surgeries, just getting through a full season healthy is a win for Taillon and the Yankees*.
*With regards to his elbow, I’ll come back to his ankle in a moment.
Additionally, “league average” isn’t a pejorative. By definition, if you have a high-powered offense (like the Yankees were supposed to have) you’re likely to win more games than you’ll lose with an average pitcher on the mound. Also, “average” is dependent upon where you draw the line for the minimum number of innings pitched or games started for apples to apples comparison. For example, only 48 pitchers made 29 starts and threw at least 144 innings in 2021, so in many cases, the pitchers Taillon is grouped with are very good pitchers. (Spoiler: The biggest reason most pitchers don’t make 29 starts and pitch 144 innings is that they aren’t good enough to do it.)
Secondly, part of the evaluation is based on the prospects for the player ongoing. In Taillon’s case, it’s more than reasonable to expect he’s going to be better in 2022 than he was in 2021. As I’ve written before, even after pain is gone and strength returns, the injured area still suffers from impaired neuromuscular control. For a pitcher, that means he can still throw hard, but he may or may not know where the ball is going much of the time. If the pitcher can get enough reps to improve his control without reinjuring the arm (or without pitching to a 6.75 ERA) that’s a good sign, because the neuromuscular control usually does return, especially in the case of an elbow which is a relatively simple joint.
With regards to Taillon’s ankle tendon, you never want to dismiss an injury that requires surgery, but by all appearances, he’ll be ready to go some time next spring. Furthermore, and to state the obvious, an ankle is not nearly as significant an injury as an elbow for a pitcher.
Don’t misunderstand: I’m not saying Taillon was something he was not in 2021. Yet if I were betting, I’d bet that back in March, if we were offered Taillon making 29 starts and pitching 144 innings to a 100 ERA+, we all would have signed on for that in a heartbeat. Although our focus is narrow today, the big picture looks good.