He knew the question was coming, like a golfer sizing up a crucial par putt on the back nine. Pittsburgh right-hander Jameson Taillon was ready for it. Instead of shying away from discussing the past two years filled with multiple surgeries, seemingly endless rehabilitation, pain management, and an unexpected setback, the 24-year-old has embraced the opportunity to share his experience.
“It’s my journey, it’s my path,” said Taillon. “I had to go through it and I think it made me better. “
Prior to last month, Taillon had not thrown a competitive pitch in a minor-league game in over two years. After undergoing Tommy John surgery in April 2014, he was on the precipice of a return to minor-league games last year before a sports hernia in his final extended spring training start required season ending surgery. He articulately reflected upon his lengthy rehabilitation from Tommy John surgery with a degree of poise and thoughtfulness that you would expect from a seasoned major-league veteran.
“It’s not as fluid of a process (rehab) as everyone thinks. I was in the spotlight pretty much my whole baseball career. Getting away from it, not having attention and hype on me was kind of hard to adjust to, but then after awhile it was refreshing, nice to get away and be able to work on things.”
According to Taillon, the most challenging aspect of his rehab was being able to trust that the surgery worked. “The first time I started experiencing pain, you start questioning it a little bit,” he said. “The pain is normal and there were definitely a lot of times that I just had to push through.”
His confidence returned during his first rehab outing while at extended spring training last May. “I threw one inning in Clearwater and I think I hit 96 mph, ended up striking out a couple of guys that day,” he recalled. “It felt fresh, very healthy. I woke up the next day and it felt good.”
Then came the unexpected setback just a few weeks later. “I worked all of 2014 with a date circled in mind (mid-summer) to come back and contribute,” said Taillon. “I was close. Every set, every lift, every throw you make while you’re rehabbing is really to return and help the team, so when that (injury) happened it was a pretty big letdown to be honest.”
Nearly a year later, Taillon feels healthy again. Despite the extended layoff, he’s dominating Triple-A hitters in the International League this spring. Through nine starts, he owns a 1.79 ERA with 54 strikeouts (8.8 K/9) and just five walks (0.8 BB/9) over 55 1/3 innings. He’s also limited opposing batters to a paltry .194 average.
“I’m feeling good, feeling strong,” said Taillon. “It’s been two years, everyone knows that. I’ve taken a lot of little tidbits from my rehab and from my two years away and tried to implement them. I’m feeling great.”
In his latest start, last Sunday, he fired six stellar innings, allowing just one run on four hits while striking out three in an 8-2 victory over Pawtucket. After skipping his last start in an effort to keep him fresh, Taillon showed no signs of rust early on, attacking a talented PawSox lineup that featured numerous hitters with major-league experience in Rusney Castillo, Justin Maxwell, Chris Dominguez, Sandy Leon and Deven Marrero.
Taillon retired the first six men in order on five groundballs and a strikeout before running into trouble in the third innings. Following a third baseman Jantzen Witte (80-grade name) double and a bunt single by Marrero put runners on the corners with nobody out, Taillon got the ensuing batter, second baseman Mike Miller, to ground into a double play and the Castillo to lineout to end the threat with only one run crossing the plate.
His fastball sat comfortably in the 93-96 mph range and he mixed in his signature mid-70s curveball, and even a handful of mid-80s changeups as well. It was his pinpoint control, especially his ability to throw strikes consistently, that stole the spotlight. In his first two trips through the Pawtucket lineup, Taillon went to a three-ball count on just four of 18 batters. Of his 83 pitches on the night, he threw 54 for strikes.
“The game plan is usually pretty easy,” said Taillon prior to the start. “I like to attack guys with my fastball, put them away with my breaking ball and use my changeup if I have to, if the situation arises. I can adjust on the fly pretty well, if they show they can time something up or hit a certain pitch, I can mix it up on the go.”
While the overall statistical results have been impressive, Taillon isn’t satisfied just yet. He continues to work hard, placing an emphasis on improving his arsenal with every outing this season. A dynamic fastball and curveball combination serve as the lynchpins in his dynamic repertoire, but Taillon used his time away from the spotlight to focus on honing his changeup, a pitch he didn’t need to throw when he was younger, but realized he would need to incorporate the higher he advanced through the Pirates minor-league system.
“One of the biggest things I had always heard, from writers and people who had never really seen me pitch, was that I didn’t have a good changeup. Once I started getting good results with my changeup, throwing it, and trusting it, then I realized I do have a good changeup. I just need to throw it.”
He’s still learning how to use his changeup and what counts to throw it in, but he believes it’s a legitimate weapon for him now. The fact that he’s adding to an already stellar arsenal, featuring it numerous times in an assortment of counts in his latest start against Pawtucket over the weekend, is bad news for opposing hitters.
“It’s an absolute weapon. I trust it. I’ve seen the results,” he said. “Thank God the Pirates, when I was in High-A and Double-A told me to go out there, don’t worry about the results, and just throw my changeup, because now at this level it’s a huge pitch for me.”
Despite Taillon’s status as the second-overall selection in 2010, one spot behind reigning NL MVP Bryce Harper, and just ahead of Orioles and White Sox superstars Manny Machado and Chris Sale, it’s Tyler Glasnow that has generated the most buzz in the Pirates system over the past few seasons. While they have been with the organization for 11 seasons combined, it’s their first time they’ve ever been teammates.
“I’ve never really been on the same team (as Taillon), I’ve just known him from instructs and spring training, but it’s nice having him here,” said Glasnow. “I think we have pretty similar stuff and I think we can learn from each other. I love watching him pitch because whatever tendencies hitters have I can pick up on because we are so similar.”
While their arsenals may be exact carbon copies, the routes they’ve taken to get to Triple-A have been vastly different. An unheralded 6-foot-8 fifth-rounder out of California, Glasnow has racked up a minor-league leading 463 strikeouts over the last three years combined.
Through 10 starts at Triple-A Indianapolis, the 22-year-old owns a sparkling 2.25 ERA with 69 strikeouts and 25 walks over 56 innings this season. In addition to limiting opposing batters to a paltry .224 average, Rays southpaw Blake Snell (12.2 K/9) is the only International League starting pitcher who boasts a higher strikeout rate than Glasnow (11.1 K/9). He’s not focused on the hype right now.
“Obviously I have goals, but I work so hard during the week that every fifth day, I just want to go out and compete,” he said. “The experience of going out and throwing is what is going to teach me the most right now.”
Glasnow took his turn dismantling the Pawtucket lineup two days earlier, firing six dominant innings, allowing just two runs on five hits while striking out six and issuing three walks, last Friday. Of his 93 pitches, 53 went for strikes. While his fastball velocity ranged from 93-97 mph consistently, all six of his strikeouts were the result of filthy curveballs. The bender also generated a pair of groundball double plays enabling him to escape a few jams.
“The curveball has always been my most comfortable pitch,” he said. “Especially as I’ve thrown it more, I can throw it for strikes, get swings and misses, and sometimes in a 3-2 count I prefer throwing my curveball. I’ve just always been able to throw spinning pitches.”
Glasnow estimated that he also mixed in eight to 10 changeups as well. It’s a pitch he has been focused on developing this season, and if he harnesses it, he’s going to have more combinations than a Panda Express menu at his disposal to keep opposing batters off balance.
“I’m getting a lot more comfortable with it,” said Glasnow of his changeup. “It’s just one of those things where I have to keep throwing it. There’s not a huge velocity change in it, it’s about 88-90 mph right now, I’m still trying to work on getting it a bit lower, but when I do throw it right, even of it is 90 mph, I get a lot of good early swings, so I just have to keep it low with a little movement on it.”
Glasnow’s height is one of the biggest challenges related to throwing a changeup in the first place. “I’m a 6-foot-8 pitcher, so it’s hard for me, just because I have so much leverage that even if I have the right grip and everything, I just have so much time to move (over the course of my delivery) that it’s hard for me to throw anything under 89 mph,” he said. “I’m still getting a feel for it, but if I can locate it where I want it and keep it low even if it’s 89 or 90 mph I get a lot of swings on it.”
Height is a recurring theme when it comes to discussing Glasnow’s career. It’s enabled him to generate tremendous fastball velocity, and fashion the deadliest curveball in the minor leagues, but it’s also at the epicenter of his control issues, which have plagued him occasionally.
“I think just being so tall, and having such long limbs, sometimes you go out and you have starts where you just aren’t feeling right, you’re walking guys.” said Glasnow. “I’ve had my fair share of those every single year and I learn a ton from having starts like that and I think they have made me into the pitcher I am today.”
Fierce competitors with glossy statistical resumes and dazzling repertoires that have left a trail of disheartened Triple-A batters in their wake this season, it’s actually Glasnow and Taillon’s personalities off the field that stand out.
“My mom was an athlete, and my dad, when I first got into pro ball said he was a decathlete at Notre Dame and it just stuck. He liked it and thinks it’s hilarious,” said Glasnow with a smile. “Dad swam in high school, my mom did gymnastics and my brother was actually the Notre Dame decathlete. Somebody must have misquoted me one time, and it blew up, so now he wants me to tell everyone that he’s a neurosurgeon.”
Just to be clear, his dad is not a neurosurgeon. Welcome to the Glasnow experience. He’s not merely “athlete funny,” as Sam Miller would say, he’s genuinely funny. It didn’t stop there either. He has a dog-named “Jody” after “Jody Highroller,” one of Riff Raff's many pseudonyms. “My mom was trying to think of a name and my brother and I, we just wanted to give her a really weird name, said ‘let’s name her Jody’ without really telling her the backstory until later and the name just stuck.”
The more reserved and cerebral of the pair, Taillon is already one of the most polarizing pitching prospects of his generation. He relishes the opportunity to immerse himself in the local culture wherever his travels take him. “On the road, I like to get out and experience new cities and places I would never get to experience otherwise,” he said referring to recent stops in Columbus and Providence. “I like to hit coffee shops, restaurants, see the local culture.” When reminded that it’s going to be a lot harder for him to wander the streets, without being recognized, in a few years if he continues on his current trajectory, he smiled. For once, nobody was talking about his health. He could be optimistic about the future.
“Yeah, that’s the goal.”
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