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It’s the fastball, stupid: Dissecting Jameson Taillon’s struggles

Trying to find a solution for the righty’s recent struggles.

New York Yankees v Boston Red Sox Photo by Kathryn Riley/Getty Images

There’s a particular quirk of baseball commentary that annoys me more than most. Jon Smoltz or A-Rod or AJ Pierzynski will talk about how a guy with unimpressive strikeout totals “knows how to pitch”, as if whiffs and Ks were merely a byproduct of dumb luck rather than explicit design. Usually, those guys who “know how to pitch” will be tagged for four home runs, and sometimes, if you’re real lucky, one will come as the offending commentator is praising this supposed old-school style of pitching.

To this end, Jameson Taillon and Sunday Night Baseball, where he was handed a 2-0 lead, then a 4-0 lead, then a 6-2 lead, and the right-hander seemed wholly uninterested in maintaining those leads. His final line, 6.0 IP, 6 ER, 3 HR, 3:1 K:BB hopefully represents the nadir of this six-week slump he’s been in, where going back to the start of June he owns a 5.77 ERA and is striking out just 20 percent of hitters.

Now there is one caveat to worshipping at the altar of strikeouts — if a pitcher is able to maintain a high groundball rate, that offsets some of the loss of whiffs. Groundballs go for singles, sometimes, not home runs and doubles. Sandy Alcantara is having a better season than anyone in the Yankee rotation, and would be fourth in the rotation by K-rate, because he engineers groundballs balls on 57 percent of balls in play.

So Taillon is striking batters out at the second-lowest rate of his career, he must be getting a lot of groundballs, right?

Well, he’s doing better than last year — fewer fly balls, more groundballs, more strikeouts, fewer walks — but doing everything a little worse than his Pirates days, especially when it comes to keeping the ball on the ground.

More concerning, though, is how these same process stats have degraded over the last six weeks or so. In April and May, he was working a 45.1 percent groundball rate. Since the start of June, that’s down to 35.2. His hard hit rate is up seven percentage points in the same time, while his strikeout rate has remained level and walk rate has increased. In short, there are more baserunners, more guys are hitting him hard, and more of those balls are off the ground. Bad things for any pitcher.

So much of the change Taillon’s made as a Yankee is just “throw the ball over the plate” in an effort to eat away at walks — it’s not dissimilar from what the Jays tried with Robbie Ray last year. The difference is the quality of stuff, where Ray’s fastball and slider were both elite last season and Taillon struggles to touch elite status with his repertoire.

Except, maybe, for Sunday night.

The Red Sox had an answer for everything Taillon offered on Sunday, except his four-seamer. Taillon threw it 56 percent of the time, his highest mark of the year by far. He got a whiff on a third of them, the second-highest mark in this bad six-week stretch outside of his good June 18 start against the Blue Jays and good June 12th outing facing the Cubs...which saw the second-highest and third-highest four-seam usage of this downturn.

Throw your fastball, Jamo. It seems to be the only pitch that MLB hitters regularly misjudge, or at least it has been over the past six weeks. The best model moving forward is likely bumping four-seam usage to 60 percent or so, with the slider the primary breaking ball for righties and curve for lefties. His sinker and changeup just don’t work — cutting them out frees up a fifth of your pitch selection.

Instead of trying to manage contact, using five pitches to keep hitters off balance, the focus for now should be on using your two best pitches to avoid contact altogether. Some pitchers may be able to make contact management work, but to pull Taillon out of this funk, nothing correlates with suppressing offense like swinging and missing.

It feels like Taillon is a perpetual project. The Pirates tweaked his usage and mechanics, both to unlock his potential and keep him healthy. Matt Blake’s done the same, with the net results being a mixed bag. It must be tiring to perennially have to try something new, but Taillon’s approach to contact isn’t working — his command isn’t good enough to keep up his mediocre secondary offerings from leaking over the plate. Focus on what you do right, until it starts to go right, and throw the four-seam.