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Jameson Taillon’s 5.09 ERA is the product of many wholesale changes during his first two months with the Yankees.
Taillon has made 11 starts, and though his ERA is north of five, there are several underlying numbers that should inspire confidence, as well as a few adjustments to his new environment that need time to crystallize. The Yankees’ right-hander has not been what the team hoped he would be so far. Given his improved fastball, a willing mentor in his rotation and what he says is a positive overall feeling, he could get there as the season marches forward.
In four seasons in Pittsburgh, with the team that took him second in the 2010 draft, Taillon was indoctrinated into the Pirates’ way of pitching. Longtime Pirates’ pitching coach Ray Searage helped rejuvenate, revive, and extend several pitchers’ careers through the power of sinkers and two-seamers, particularly A.J. Burnett and Charlie Morton.
Taillon was a prototypical sinker baller early in his Pirate days as well. As a 24-year-old rookie in 2016, Taillon was throwing a sinker on 41.3% of his pitches.
In his first year with the Yankees, that percentage has evaporated all the way down to 1.6. Like his fellow ex-Pirate Gerrit Cole, Taillon moved away from the sinker lifestyle after leaving Pittsburgh, opting for the velocity of a four-seamer over the finesse of his previously preferred pitch.
“I wouldn’t say it was something going into the year that I set out to do,” Taillon said of his boosted fastball usage, which is at a career-high 52.4 percent. “I kind of just look at the lineups and see how my pitches grade out to different hitters. I guess that’s kind of led to me throwing the fastball a little more.”
Taillon’s fastball, which averages 93.6 miles per hour, does not hit the same part of the radar gun as Cole or Luis Severino’s heaters. Still, it’s been an effective pitch, accounting for 41 of his 58 strikeouts and making batters swing through it 32.8% of the time. That’s a career-best for Taillon, whose highest fastball whiff rate as a Pirate was 24.3%. When learning how to become more of a power pitcher, there’s very few people who are better to learn from than the Yankees’ ace.
“Gerrit’s an open book,” Taillon said. “We’re talking a lot about pitching just in general. The four-seam usage is a different style, it’s a different way of pitching. When you’re pitching at the top of the zone consistently, it’s got some great rewards. It’s also risky going up there. The middle of the plate is right there. It’s something I’ve been adjusting to and trying to get better at.”
Self awareness also seems to be an improved skill for Taillon. The middle of the plate has given him trouble all season. Taillon has allowed 1.70 home runs per nine innings (the highest mark of his career), and six of the 10 long balls he’s allowed have come on the fastball. Moving away from the sinker has predictably led to fewer grounders and more balls in the air. In Yankee Stadium’s airtight dimensions, though, those balls in the air often don’t come back.
Though he kept the Red Sox in the ballpark for his six-hit, three earned run outing on Saturday, Boston still chased Taillon after a mere 76 pitches, continuing a frustrating trend for the righty.
“Unfortunately it’s kind of the same thing I’ve been feeling lately, where I feel like I threw better than the result,” Taillon confessed after 5.1 innings against Boston. “It’s just another night where a couple pitches really hurt. I’m encouraged with the way I threw, but that sixth inning [when Boston scored three runs to take the lead] just can’t happen.”
Despite progressing to an important step of his recovery, Corey Kluber was transferred to the 60-day IL over the weekend, and whenever Luis Severino makes his return, the fireballer will likely be under some restrictions. Taillon is an important piece of the Yankees’ puzzle, the type of depth player whose performance can turn a good team great.
“I feel like we’re close,” Taillon said of the middling Yankees. “It’s still a long year. You can’t really dwell on it too much.”
Whether or not the Yankees want to dwell on it, they are slipping in the standings while the Rays and Red Sox are trending in the opposite direction. For a team with World Series aspirations, the pressure is increasing for Taillon and the Yanks to make their necessary adjustments sooner rather than later.