The Yankees’ acquisition of Jameson Taillon from the Pirates this offseason was full of both upside and risk — he was a former top prospect, drafted second overall in 2010 behind Bryce Harper, but had seen most of his career derailed by arm injuries and a cancer diagnosis that he thankfully overcame. The beginning of his 2021 season showed more of that risk, but since June some tweaks to his pitching style have led to Taillon being a leader on New York’s pitching staff. His latest outing going six innings while allowing one unearned run on Monday night against the Royals only continued that trend.
But the right-hander’s season looked like it may have reached a nadir on June 12th against the Philadelphia Phillies, when he faced seven batters, recorded one out, and allowed four runs with one walk and zero strikeouts. It was an amalgamation of all of his issues to that date: not being able to put batters away (and do it quickly), less than ideal control, and leaving far too many innings for the bullpen to mop up.
However, since that day Taillon has been one of the best pitchers in the American League, and has provided steadiness atop the Yankees’ rotation — especially with Gerrit Cole and Jordan Montgomery on the IL for COVID-19. In his 10 starts since the Phillies game, Taillon has a 2.21 ERA.
How has Taillon improved? Part of it is likely just getting comfortable with starting every fifth day again while finally being healthy. But his method of attacking hitters appears to have changed as well. Using June 12th as our benchmark, Taillon has decreased his reliance on his fastball and slider while upping his usage of his curveball.
The curveball is particularly interesting to note, as MLB.com’s Mike Petriello noted on Twitter that Taillon worked with Cole specifically after the Phillies start to adjust his grip.
after he had that one awful game vs PHI he said he worked with Cole to change his grip, I believe— Mike Petriello (@mike_petriello) August 9, 2021
He's also ditched the stretch for the windup, which he says helps him focus.
Petriello also points out his better curveball location — while in April, he mostly appeared to leave it up, now he’s much better at leaving it consistently down in the done, where batters will either hit it onto the ground or swing and miss.
Interested to see Jameson Taillon against KC tonight, because he's been fantastic lately. Part of it is .. look how different his curveball is located compared to early on. pic.twitter.com/u9b6sa5XMj— Mike Petriello (@mike_petriello) August 9, 2021
Whether or not it was caused by Cole’s advice, Taillon has apparently been feeling more confident in his curveball, increasing its use from an average of 19.2 percent of the time up to and including the Phillies game, and 21.9 percent afterwards. Not a huge increase percentage wise, of course, but it bumped him from 34th in MLB in curveball usage to 18th (min. 30 IP).
His increased reliance on his curveball also comes with a decreased reliance on his slider. His usage of that pitch decreased from 21.5 percent of his pitches to 18.2 percent from mid-June onwards. Perhaps learning Cole’s grip changed made the curveball Taillon’s go-to breaking pitch, moving away from the slider. That could be for a good reason — he’s getting swings and misses on 27.8 percent of his curveballs, as opposed to 19.9 percent of his sliders, per Baseball Savant.
Also according to Baseball Savant, Taillon currently ranks 26th in all of baseball in curveball RPM, behind Cole but ahead of the likes of Yu Darvish and Jacob deGrom. In 2018, his last full season, he ranked 41st. The movement of his slider has actually decreased. Another reason to swap the curve for the slider whenever possible — opponents are slugging .527 against the slider vs. .316 against the curve.
Whether or not the credit goes to Gerrit Cole or just learning more to pitch to his strengths, Taillon’s improved curve certainly seems to be at least a factor in this stretch of the season, by far the best in his career.