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Jameson Taillon is one pitch away from putting it together for the Yankees

Taillon might be on the cusp of a breakthrough.

MLB: New York Yankees at Texas Rangers Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The Yankees likely knew that the Jameson Taillon experience in 2021 wouldn’t be all smooth sailing. A 29-year-old former second overall pick with two Tommy John surgeries, there was bound to be some growing pains in his first game action since 2019. The Yankees took their time getting Taillon’s pitch count up, and even though he is now throwing without any limits, he has only thrown over 90 pitches twice this season.

That, however, has more to do with his performance than his stamina. Taillon has been inconsistent for the Yankees this year, to the tune of a 5.03 ERA, 4.52 FIP and 1.22 WHIP. His strikeouts are way up, but so too are his home runs. It’s all resulted in a performance akin to a useful backend starter, even though the Yankees and their fans expected more.

But, Taillon might be closer to a breakthrough than it may seem. Over his five starts in May, opponents are only hitting .212 against him, and his K/9 is a nifty 10.3. Plus, his most recent start was his best one, tossing five scoreless innings against a potent White Sox lineup on Sunday.

When the Yankees first acquired Taillon, several journalists (including this one) surmised on how Taillon might follow the Gerrit Cole-Tyler Glasnow-Charlie Morton blueprint of pitchers who achieved success by changing their repertoires after leaving Pittsburgh. The Pirates love their sinkers, but the focus on pitching to contact limited these pitchers’ effective four-seamers. Sure enough, Taillon has all but ditched the sinker this year, and his four-seamer has become his primary put-away pitch.

Although his velocity is down on the year as a whole, it has progressively ticked up, and Taillon recently said he was “encouraged” with the pitch. It’s a high-spin offering that has generated an impressive 32.1% whiff rate and .220 opponents’ average. Check out these two punchouts he got on the fastball in his latest start:

The first one was in the first inning against Yermín Mercedes, and touched 96 mph. The last one ended up being Taillon’s final pitch of the day, and although it was just 93 mph, it fooled former batting champion Tim Anderson. That’s a good illustration of the two ways Taillon’s fastball can get hitters out – with velocity in the first clip, and with its deceptive spin rate in the second.

Unfortunately, one thing is holding Taillon back from hitting his full potential. His curveball, usually a strikeout weapon, is getting pounded this year to the tune of a .306 batting average against, and the lowest whiff rate (24.1 percent) that he has ever garnered on the pitch. Scott Thompson at SNY discovered that Taillon’s release point on his curveball has been higher than his other pitches, which has him thinking that perhaps Taillon is tipping the pitch. Whatever the cause may be, Taillon needs to get command of that curveball, because his slider and changeup aren’t good enough secondary pitches to make up for his compromised curve.

There’s plenty of reason to think that Taillon is close to coming through for the Yankees, and the fact that his fastball has been as good as it has been in his first year using it like this is very encouraging. But, with Corey Kluber’s injury status uncertain, the Yankees may need more from their rotation. With Taillon the only member of the rotation who has not met or exceeded expectations so far, the onus falls his way to step forward, especially with some big games against Tampa Bay and Boston coming up next week. To get to where he needs to be, he’ll need to give opposing hitters trouble with the curve.