When I wrote Jameson Taillon’s report card a couple weeks ago, I noted that over the course of the full 2021 season, he was more or less a league-average pitcher. Again, league average isn’t a pejorative, especially for a guy who threw 144.1 innings over 29 starts after not having been on an MLB mound in almost two calendar years.
Although the season as a whole was more or less average, fans will likely remember that —like many Yankees — Taillon had seemingly long stretches of running either hot or cold. It’s hard to forget his June 12th start against Philadelphia in which he didn’t get out of the first inning, allowing four earned runs on five hits while recording only one out (a sacrifice fly to deep right-center field). His next start on June 18th against Oakland looked like a bounce-back only because the previous start was so horrendous, but the A’s touched Taillon for two runs in under five innings en route to a 5-3 win over the Yankees.
As of the end of that June 18th outing against Oakland, Taillon’s season numbers were pretty ugly. In 13 starts, he’d thrown 58 innings to the tune of a 5.59 ERA and a 4.49 xFIP, and the Yankees went 4-9 in those starts. Among 75 AL starters who’d tossed a minimum of 40 innings at that point in the season, Taillon’s ERA ranked 61st and his xFIP 57th.
Then on June 24th against Kansas City, Taillon turned his season around with a 6.1-inning, 96-pitch effort, leading the Yankees to an 8-1 win against the Royals. That kick-started a seven-week stretch in which both Taillon and the team saw very different results than they had up to that point in the season. Starting with that win, Taillon threw 55 innings to the tune of a 1.96 ERA over his next nine starts — the AL’s best over that stretch— with the Yankees going 8-1 in those games. Even in the one loss on July 11th versus Houston, Taillon threw six innings and departed with the Yankees leading, 3-2.
Taillon was later rewarded with AL Pitcher of the Month honors for July.
Taillon’s hot stretch was interesting in that many of his peripheral numbers weren’t much different before and after that season-turning June 24th start. In fact, although very close, his xFIP, K%, and BB% were all slightly better prior to June 24th, when opposing teams were using the basepaths as a merry-go-round, than they were during his hot stretch from June 24th to August 9th. (4.49 xFIP, 25-percent strikeout rate, 7.1-percent walk rate prior to June 24th, and 4.67 xFIP, 22.2-percent strikeout rate, 7.2-percent walk rate from June 24th through August 9th.)
If you’re like me and you consider strikeout rates, walk rates, and xFIP to be pretty good indicators of a pitcher’s performance, and find ERA much less reliable, then you also likely thought that Taillon was simply on the right side of good fortune during his nine-start hot streak. Going a couple of steps further, his opponents’ BABIP was 65 points higher prior to June 24th than it was during his hot streak, while his runners left on-base percentage was 17-percent lower*. That brings us a couple of nudges closer to the “he wasn’t pitching better over the summer, he was just getting lucky” side of the evaluation.
*I am of the mind that runners left on base is a big factor in winning and losing, but it’s not a particularly controllable skill, therefore randomness plays a huge part.
Before we jump to conclusions, we have to look at as much information as time will allow, and luckily, we have another minute or so today. I write “luckily” because Taillon was much better in certain aspects of pitching from June 24th through August 9th than earlier in the season. Most importantly, Taillon became much better at generating weak contact during his nine-start hot streak.
Prior to June 24th, the percentage of balls hit softly off Taillon was 17.3 percent, and the hard-hit percentage sat at 31 percent. From June 24th through August 9th, the percentages were 21.6 and 26.1 respectively. If you’re thinking a 4.3-percent increase in balls batted softly isn’t that much of an improvement, think again: Up to June 24th, Taillon’s 17.3-percent soft-hit rate ranked 31st in the AL, and his 21.6-percent soft-hit rate from June 24th to August 9th was third-best.
Generating soft contact is obviously always good for pitchers regardless of any further specifics. Yet in Taillon’s case, there is a specific aspect that played a big role in his ability to keep teams off the scoreboard during his hot streak. Although his fly-ball rates from prior to June 24th and during his hot streak were only 0.6-percent different, Taillon’s home-run-to-fly-ball ratio dropped precipitously from June 24th through August 9th. Prior to June 24th, 13.9-percent of fly balls hit off Taillon left the yard; only 8.6-percent did from June 24th through August 9th. It stands to reason that the ball was staying in the park because batters weren’t hitting it very hard off Taillon for the majority of the summer.
Weak contact can generally be attributed to good command and location, which makes sense in Taillon’s case, as his command would likely improve with more innings, considering he’d been out of action for so long. Yet in addition to — or perhaps because of — the likely improved command, Taillon also became more aggressive during his hot streak. Prior to June 24th, Taillon’s first-pitch strike percentage was 60.7, and it jumped to 66.5 during his hot streak. This obviously provided increased value to the Yankees as more well-located first strikes mean fewer total pitches thrown which means more innings pitched.
The numbers back this up. Prior to June 24th, Taillon averaged 18 pitches per inning and just over 4.1 innings per start. From June 24th through August 9th, he averaged 15 pitches per inning and just over 6 innings per start. He was not only better, but better over more innings.
What does all of this tell us? From a statistical standpoint, not much more than we should already know: Some statistics tell us more than others, but one should look at as many as possible, and randomness will always be a factor, regardless.
From a player standpoint, it should give us optimism about Taillon. His phenomenal summer can’t simply be dismissed as good fortune, and as I alluded, his command is likely to remain reliable as long as he’s healthy and logging regular time on the mound. Taillon finished the season in an up-and-down fashion, with an average game score of 47 over his last seven starts, but even that comes with caveats. First, fatigue may have been an issue, as his 144.1 innings were his most in one season since 2018 and the second-highest total of his career; end-of-season fatigue presumably will be less of an issue in 2022. Also, given what we learned about his ankle, it wouldn’t be surprising to find out that he was pitching at less than 100 percent over the season’s final weeks, either.
Here’s hoping that Taillon’s mostly-self-regulated post-surgery physical therapy program is working.