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December 13, 2013

Raising Aces

Bush League: Jameson Taillon

by Doug Thorburn

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Jameson Taillon was the no. 2 overall pick in the 2010 draft, selected by the Pittsburgh Pirates out of a Texas high school. Since that summer, the 22-year-old has taken a deliberate route through the minor leagues, spending some time at each level before reaching for the next rung on the ladder. The right-hander now stands on the doorstep of the majors, having finished the 2013 season with a month-long stretch at Triple-A Indianapolis, and he could very well join the Pittsburgh rotation by the summer of 2014 if he avoids derailment from his development track.

Taillon's prospect stock has taken a bit of a hit since I profiled him last winter, as his numbers have continued to fall short of the dominance that his stuff suggests. However, the developmental process is far more important than statistical outcomes in the bush leagues, and Taillon is following a trail that was blazed by Gerrit Cole, choosing to focus more on the elements that he needs to improve in order to find sustainable success at the highest level, at the expense of immediate results. Thus, the underlying numbers fail to capture the nuances of his development.

GS

IP

ERA

K %

BB %

H %

HR %

AA

19

110.3

3.67

22.2%

7.5%

23.4%

1.7%

AAA

6

37.0

3.89

22.8%

9.9%

19.1%

0.6%

Still, the stats are nothing to sneeze at. Taillon's strikeout rate was solid yet unspectacular, exceeding his strikeout frequency of 2012 by a healthy margin. His Triple-A walk rate was buoyed by a few intentional walks (it was 8.0 percent otherwise), but he showed a greater penchant for the free pass when compared to previous seasons.

Taillon continued to limit the longball, and his ERA for Double-A Altoona should be taken with a grain of salt, as it was greatly inflated by a 10-run blow-up at Akron on July 13 in which he only last 3.3 innings and added 0.73 runs to his final rate. Perhaps the most glaring blip on the right-hander’s statistical radar is his extreme vulnerability to stolen bases—opposing baserunners swiped 40 bags across two levels against Taillon, with only five runners caught on the year. This has been a trend, with attempted thieves achieving success on 35 of 38 attempts in 2012 and 19 of 21 in '11; all told, Taillon has given up 94 steals in his professional career at a 90 percent success rate across 382 innings.

There is plenty of footage of Taillon’s 2013 season on MiLB.tv that can be used for diagnostic purposes, soI went to the tapes to unearth the elements that shaped his development curve for the year.

April 12th vs. Harrison
Taillon racked up 10 strikeouts in his second game of the season, allowing three walks and a pair of earned runs across six frames. His velocity was slow out of the gate according to the stadium gun (though there are caveats with radar readings in minor-league parks), sitting at 92-93 mph in the first couple of innings and touching 94 in the later frames. Diminished velo is common early in the season as pitchers build strength and hone mechanics, so the depressed numbers weren't a major concern, and the right-hander used his steep curveball to keep batters off-balance.

He showed a willingness to throw hammers in nearly any situation, including on the first pitch, in one-strike counts, and in situations where a strikeout was in order. He also demonstrated the ability to drop curves over the plate or bury them under the zone, and the “Curve” emblem on the front of his jersey was no help to opposing batters in identifying the pitch out of hand.

Taillon’s momentum was slow for the first couple of batters, and he struggled with mistimed deliveries while he worked to find his signature pace to the plate. He was able to find a better burst as the game progressed, but release point inconsistency plagued him throughout the contest, and there were several instances in which he over-corrected an under-rotated pitch by firing his trunk too early on the next offering, resulting in over-rotation.

Fastball command was an issue throughout the contest, but Taillon continued to use the curve to get himself out of trouble. The biggest blow was a deep solo home run by Steven Souza, Jr in the fourth inning, the result of a fastball that was served on a platter.

Taillon encountered trouble again in the sixth, but he was able to work his way out the jam with a pair of strikeouts to end the inning, the threat, and his day on the mound.

July 13th @ Akron
July 13, 2013 was the date of the infamous Taillon massacre, in which 10 runs were surrendered before he could escape the fourth inning. The bludgeoning took place in two bursts, with five runs scored in each of the first and fourth frames. The first five batters whom Taillon faced tallied hits off the righty, but only one of those safeties was hit hard—a double in the right-center field gap by Akron's no. 2 hitter, Ronny Rodriguez. For the most part, Taillon was getting dinked to death by infield grounders and bunts (both swinging and non-swinging), the types of hits that could be turned into outs by a big-league defensive unit.

Akron hitters were spying fastballs and swinging early in the count, and a general lack of command was keeping Taillon’s pitches too close to the center of the plate. The trend stayed true in the second inning, but this time the worm-burners found leather and Taillon was able to breeze through unscathed. He was one pitch shy of retiring the batters in order, but an unmerciful call on a 3-2 curveball led to his only walk of the game rather than an inning-ending K.

Taillon ended up with three groundball outs in the second inning, and the third frame was more of the same, with a 6-4-3 double play followed by another groundout. Nearly everything was hit on the ground for the first three innings, a tendency backed up by Taillon's 52 percent groundball rate during his four months with Altoona. His fastball squatted in the 92-94 mph range, touching 95 and essentially matching the velo from his start versus Harrisburg, but his lack of command was playing right into the hands of the Aeros' bats. Taillon did mix in a few more changeups in this game, and though the pitch was inconsistent, he flashed pictures of what could be an effective pitch in the future.

Taillon started the fourth with a swinging K on a 94-mph fastball in the zone, but the next five batters re-ignited the run-scoring fireworks for Akron. The hits were more legit this time around, with a barrage of line drives interrupted by the occasional hard-hit grounder that found a gap. Once again, most of the damage was incurred on plate-crossing fastballs, and the carnage was punctuated by a big three-run bomb that was golfed out of the yard by Akron cleanup hitter Jesus Aguilar. The blast put Taillon out of his misery and sent him to the showers.

August 16th vs. Columbus
Taillon was making his third start for Indianapolis when he faced the Columbus Clippers in mid-August. The game came just five weeks after his career-worst outing in Akron, but he was a completely different beast on the mound, with far superior stuff than he had in either of the other two games under the microscope. His fastball was parked in the 95-96 mph range and hit 97 on several occasions, a velocity that he maintained for six full frames, and his command of the pitch was more refined. His curveball retained the depth that had led to double-digit strikeouts in the Harrisburg game, and the changeup was a much-improved weapon due to enhanced fade.

Taillon finished with nine strikeouts against three walks (one intentional) and six hits, though just one of those hits (a double) went for extra bases. He allowed two runs to cross the plate, but perhaps the greatest driver of Columbus’ run-scoring was on the bases—Taillon allowed five steals in the ballgame, as the outing exposed the weaknesses that have made him so vulnerable to theft.

The trouble began in the first inning, when speedster Ezequiel Carrera beat out a weak infield grounder for a one-out single. Taillon was more than cognizant of the threat posed by Carrera, throwing over to first base three times before offering a single pitch to the batter at the plate. Taillon's move was less than impressive, and though his footwork was sound it was also easy to read, while his rotational sequence was not quick enough to keep runners honest.

Carrera didn't take off from first base in this instance, but the cat-and-mouse game continued after he advanced to second base. Taillon has a tendency to step off the rubber and give looks with a man on second, and though I watched him toss glances toward the keystone a half-dozen times over the course of the games under the glass today, I am still waiting for his first throw to the base. Carrera was unfazed, and he eventually took off for third on the front end of a double-steal, leading to two of the five stolen bases that Taillon bequeathed in the game. Carrera would steal another base in the fifth inning, and though Taillon would once again throw over to first with a couple of pickoff attempts, Carrera got a great jump on the first delivery to the plate and swiped the bag without a slide.

The fifth and final theft was the most egregious example of them all. Nate Spears, who totaled six steals in 76 games last year, took advantage of Taillon to get an excellent jump and swipe second base despite the fact that Indy had called for a pitchout. Spears would have likely been nailed if the catcher's throw had been on target, but the end result just added insult to injury for the young right-hander.

Taillon's excellent repertoire should have been the story of this game, but his susceptibility to the steal stole the show. When he's on, the combination of two 70-grade pitches can stop batters in their tracks, and taken in isolation the fastball-curveball combination is good enough to play in the bigs right now. But Taillon’s developmental to-do list will need to address the glaring issues of timing inconsistency and controlling the basepaths in order for him to make the most of his raw tools.

Mechanics Report Card

2012

2013

Balance

55

65

Momentum

60

55

Torque

70

65

Posture

60

60

Release Distance

65

60

Repetition

60

50

For an explanation of the grading system for pitching mechanics, please consult this pair of articles.

The middle column of the above table represents the grades I gave to Taillon last winter, while the right-hand column has been updated for 2013. Not surprisingly, the grades are very similar across the board, but there are some differences that have resulted in a slightly less-efficient delivery over time. Nothing stands out as a red flag, per se, but the overall package reflects some of the areas where Taillon could easily take a step forward before announcing his presence in the show.

The one area of improvement is balance, where the gains have been significant. Taillon has greatly quieted the drop of his center-of-gravity during the stride phase of his delivery, maintaining a more stable head position throughout the motion. The change will ultimately enable him to find a more consistent release point by providing a stronger foundation for all the other mechanical elements of his delivery.

The slight drop in Taillon’s momentum grade is due to the fact that his burst to the plate was inconsistent in 2013, such that his average momentum fell short of plus marks. He still earns a 60 when he lines up the gears on good days, but the presence of some slower deliveries, coupled with an initial move to the plate that was less powerful, lowers the grade. The torque grade suffered a likewise fate—Taillon still hits 70-grade torque when he lines up all of the gears, but there were some pitches on which he utilized less upper-body load, and others in which mistimed rotation prevented his hips from generating as much power in his delivery, thus denting the overall grade.

Taillon’s posture is still a plus attribute that compares favorably to his stature of last season. Perhaps most impressive is his ability to maintain the same spine angle on all of his pitches, including the steep curveball, on which many pitchers exaggerate spine-tilt in order to manipulate the tumbling action. His overall release distance does take a hit, though, due to the combination of haphazard momentum and inconsistent timing that reduces the number of pitches that achieve full extension at release point. That inconsistency is reflected in the final grade for repetition, which suffered the biggest drop from 2012 to '13 based on the games that were under review. Repetition is the most critical grade on the report card, and Taillon is a glaring example of the ripple affect that it can have on the other subjects at play.

Taillon has a good delivery from the stretch, and I have made no secrets about my preference for a more natural leg-lift versus the slide step. However, his stretch strategy combined with a subpar pick-off move has been easily exploitable in the minors, and things won't get any easier in the majors. The Pirates will face pressure to promote Taillon during their follow-up to the franchise's first winning season in 20 years, but it might be worth it to them in the long run to smooth out these fine-grained elements of his profile before giving him the big call.

Doug Thorburn is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Doug's other articles. You can contact Doug by clicking here

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