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The upside and downside of Jameson Taillon

The Yankees may have just acquired the proverbial Robin to their Batman.

On Sunday, the Yankees swung a trade for starting pitcher Jameson Taillon for four minor league prospects as outlined by Bronx Pinstripes writer Delia Enriquez. The trade represents a much anticipated move to bolster the rotation with an arm capable of slotting into the rotation behind Gerrit Cole. The trade is a high risk, high reward gamble for the Yankees. There is upside in the skillset but downside in the health history of Taillon. Let’s breakdown the potential and red flags of the new Yankee’s pitcher.

He’s built for Yankee Stadium

Since debuting, Jameson Taillon’s calling card has been groundballs and soft contact. In his last full season, 2018, he was comfortably above league average in groundball percentage (46.2% vs 43.2%), hard hit percentage (30.1% vs 35.3%), and HR/FB percentage (11.7% vs 12.7%). The groundball percentage and hard hit percentage wouldn’t be directly affected by Yankee Stadium, but we could see an uptick in HR/FB percentage simply because Taillon will be going from the pitcher friendly confines of PNC Park to the hitter’s dream in the Bronx.

Using park factors generated with data since 2008, we find that PNC park was 7% worse than average for home runs and 8% worse for average for runs in general. For Yankee Stadium, home runs were 10% better than average and 1% better than average for general runs. It’s safe to assume that there will be a jump in HR/FB percentage for Taillon in 2021 but he’s got a solid enough profile that he’ll probably settle right around league average with the Yankees.

The injury history

Taillon has a checkered injury past. He’s a two-time recipient of Tommy John Surgery. His first bout with TJS came when he was still a minor leaguer in 2014. Then in 2015 he was forced to miss the entire season due to sports hernia surgery. He eventually made his debut in 2016 starting 18 games. In 2017 he made Pirates rotation right out of spring training but was forced to miss most of May and part of June after undergoing surgery for testicular cancer. He didn’t show any ill effects after returning to the rotation on June 12, and ended up making 25 starts in his sophomore season.

2018 was Taillon’s finest year in terms of on-field results but more importantly in terms of health. Taillon made 32 starts pitching 191 innings while putting up his best single season ERA at 3.20. Looking to build off his best full season, Taillon was unfortunately only able to make seven starts before being placed on the injured list with flexor strain that would eventually lead to his second Tommy John Surgery. He’s currently rehabbing from that surgery and did not pitch in 2020.

It was reported back in December that Taillon was on schedule to return to start 2021 but nothing is for certain given this is his second TJS. Taillon will be the second pitcher returning from TJS for the Yankees in 2021 with the other being Luis Severino. It seems quite risky to place a bet on two pitchers returning to form in order to round out your rotation in 2021 but the Yankees are doing it anyway.

He found a new pitch and adjusted his usage

Back in 2019, Jameson Taillon told MLB.com that he was excited to continue the development of a slider that he began using in May of 2018. He didn’t really get that opportunity as his 2019 season was cut short but there is solid data to support that the slider is big reason why Taillon put up his best season in 2018.

Prior to that season, Taillon was primarily a four seam, sinker, curveball pitcher that would throw in a show me changeup once in a while. Eventually, hitters started to spit on his curveball and look for that fastball. Taillon had to adjust and did so by adjusting his grips on his breaking ball until he discovered a slider/cutter hybrid. He’s always had good velocity on his fastball averaging 95 MPH on his fastball/sinker and some of that velocity translates over to his slider as well. He averaged 90.46 MPH and 89.44 MPH on his slider in 2018 and 2019 respectively.

There is a catch here though. Since he is recovering from a second TJS, there’s no way of knowing if the velocity will come back. Some pitchers do get most of their velocity back and some don’t. Taillon did return from his first TJS with good velocity but that was over five years ago and we just don’t know if it will happen again. Let’s assume he does get that velocity back in a best case scenario. In 2018, Taillon threw his slider 14.24% of his pitches which resulted in a whiff rate of 16.4%. That whiff rate was higher than both his changeup (14.29%) and his curveball (14.5%). The next season, he beefed up the slider usage even more to 27.87%. There is some correlation, but not necessarily a causation, between increased slider usage and the frequency of arm injuries so it may be something the Yankees are afraid to continue given Taillon’s status.

Taillon made another change to his repertoire though. He cut his sinker usage from 33.3% to 19.68% while increasing his four seam usage from 29.74% to 38.16%. The results of the change were mostly good. His overall groundball percentage remained mostly the same while his line drive percentage went down and his fly ball percentage went up but both of those changes were only slight changes. Looking at the sinker and four seamer specifically, his batted ball data changed dramatically in 2018. His groundball rate on his sinker and four seamers in 2018 were 72.22% and 37.10% respectively up from 59.49% and 33.33% in 2017. His fly ball percentages on those pitches remained basically the same.

The biggest number I can throw at you to show the effect the fastball adjustment had on Taillon is his batting average against. In 2017, his BAA on his four seamer and sinker were .268 and .276. In 2018, they were .194 and .216. It’s just one full season but it seems that the adjustment allowed Taillon to get better outcomes when opponents did put balls in play against him. In 2019, his groundball rates returned to rates similar to 2017 but his BAA actually looked better than it did in 2018. Keep in mind he only made seven starts in 2019 but it’s still somewhat encouraging that he built off his improved batted ball data.

There is obviously a lot of upside in Jameson Taillon. Since the trade, it has come to light that Taillon and Gerrit Cole have been talking all offseason and are excited to be back together in the same uniform.

Could Gerrit Cole have some pitching insight to provide to Taillon in order for him to take the next step and become the Yankees second ace? Anything is possible, I guess. Taillon could become a top of the rotation starter or spend the majority of his time in pinstripes on the injured list. The Yankees will have two years of team control to find out.