Will the Pirates Avoid the Stephen Strasburg Shutdown with Jameson Taillon?

During the 2012 season, the Washington Nationals won 98 games, taking the NL East division, and making the post-season for the first time since moving to Washington in 2005, and the first time in franchise history since the Montreal Expos made it in 1981. Despite this success, the Nationals drew a lot of criticism over the fact that they shut down their top young pitcher, Stephen Strasburg.

The right-handed phenom was coming off Tommy John surgery, and had pitched 159.1 innings before being shut down in early September with an aim to preserving his health in the future. The Nationals lost 3-2 in the Division Series, which raised questions as to how they would have done with Strasburg pitching in the post-season. It also raised the question of why they didn’t start him later in the season, so that he’d be available for September and the playoffs.

The Pittsburgh Pirates are going to be in a similar situation with Jameson Taillon this year. Taillon isn’t the same quality of pitcher as Strasburg, with the latter already putting up 17 strong outings in the majors before his surgery. However, he will start the season in Triple-A, and has a shot to help the Pirates in the majors during the second half of the season. The Pirates also project as a strong playoff contender right now, meaning they might be in the same situation where they could use Taillon late in the season.

So how will the team prepare? Will they shut Taillon down early? Or will they start him later and allow him to finish the season?

Taillon said that the main focus right now is getting back on the mound, although he thinks that there’s a possibility that the Pirates could start him later so that he’s pitching in September.

“I think the mindset here is that going into it, they’d rather push me back a little bit, so I can finish the year with innings, as opposed to have to do what Strasburg did,” Taillon said. “I remember that was a big deal, him getting shut down in September. So I think they’d rather me have innings left for September, rather than use all my innings in April.”

I asked Pirates’ General Manager Neal Huntington whether they would take this approach, but he was more focused on Taillon’s return to the mound.

“Our big picture is to get him back healthy,” Huntington said. “Get him through the throwing program. Get him back on a mound. Get him back competing and allow that to take us where it takes us. We’re not pre-determined that he’s going to be ready to help us at the big league level by date X. He’ll be ready to help us at the big league level when he’s ready to help us at the big league level, and we’ll cross the hurdles as we cross them.”

It wouldn’t be a shock if the Pirates started Taillon later and allowed him to finish the season with innings in September and October. That matches many of their organizational practices. In the minors, they don’t focus on what level players start the year, but rather where they finish the year. They control minor league inning totals so that players can finish the minor league season, rather than being shut down in early August.

Clay Holmes is also returning from Tommy John surgery, but unlike Taillon, he has no shot at the majors this year. Still, Holmes said he is more likely to start later in the season, with the main goal being his ability to finish the year.

“That’s one thing they have told me, they don’t want that to happen,” Holmes said about being shut down early. “So if anything, it’s going to be my start is late so I can finish the year.”

There’s no guarantee the Pirates do the same thing with Taillon and avoid the Strasburg Dilemma, but all signs point to that being their approach. Huntington did say that they will be “ultra-conservative” with him, and might not start him back exactly one year after the surgery, which was performed on April 6th.

“Our goal is to make sure Jameson is a really good pitcher seven to ten years from now, hopefully 12 to 14 years from now, not just 12 to 14 months after his surgery,” Huntington said. “We’ll probably frustrate him with as conservative as we’re going to be. He’s going to hit a point in time where he feels great and wants to push it forward, and we’re going to want to stay on the calendar and put him in a position to be successful for years to come, not because there’s some target date randomly set in 2015.”

It doesn’t seem that Taillon will be that frustrated with a conservative approach, or a delayed start. After mentioning the delayed start as a possibility, he simply followed up by saying he was on board with that plan.

Taillon has been throwing since the end of July, and will throw off the mound for the first time next week. He has been throwing at 120 feet since early November. The Pirates are semi-strict about allowing pitchers to extend beyond 120 feet, making sure that those pitchers can demonstrate an ability to remain healthy and maintain their mechanics before allowing a longer distance. Taillon previously extended beyond 120, but has stuck to the 120 limit this off-season.

“I try to stick to 120, just for the rehab purposes,” Taillon said. “I’m very strict about getting my exact number of throws in at the exact distances.”

Taillon also discussed some of the other differences in his current throwing program coming off Tommy John surgery, including how he’s managed to deal with a lack of available competition.

“My arm is really built up,” Taillon said, noting that he’s had more throws in the rehab program. “And I think another thing is more focus and attention to detail. This throwing program is really all I’ve had as far as my competition. That’s the closest I’ve been able to be on a mound. I find myself focusing a lot more at it now, and not taking it for granted, and trying to compete against myself with every throw instead of just going out there to do it.”

As far as pitches, Taillon just started throwing his changeup three weeks ago in flat grounds. He started throwing the curveball a week ago from 60 feet at the end of his sessions, just flipping a few pitches to get a feel for the spin again. Off the field, he has filled his time with “a lot of video games, grilling food, fishing, and guitar lessons.” Taillon went home to Texas for four weeks over the holidays, but has spent most of his rehab time in Bradenton.

“I just decided it was in my best interest as far as rehab goes, pitching goes [to rehab in Bradenton],” Taillon said. “These guys here have money invested in me and they care about me. But they have my best interests. The pitching coaches know me extremely well, so they know what to look for, and they’ve dealt with a lot of rehab guys too. So I thought this would be the best spot for me.”

One benefit to being in Bradenton is that Taillon was able to talk with Charlie Morton about the rehab process from Tommy John surgery.

“I talked to Charlie a little bit,” Taillon said. “He works out here in the off-season, so I get to see him almost every day, which is phenomenal. He’s such an approachable guy. I don’t really ask him as much about the physical things, but I’ll ask him about what he did to stay busy, or how he was mentally at certain stages, or how he managed to stay patient with it. It is good to know that you have guys to fall back on if you need them.”

Taillon was expected to arrive in the majors during the 2014 season, but his surgery put that plan on hold. Nothing is confirmed right now on when he will start the 2015 season, or when he might reach the majors, if that is a possibility at all. The end of Spring Training will give more clarity on his situation. As for right now, don’t be surprised if the Pirates start him a bit later, with the focus on saving some of his innings for September and October, and thus avoiding the situation the Nationals were in with Strasburg.

  • ““My arm is really built up,” Taillon said, noting that he’s had more
    throws in the rehab program. “And I think another thing is more focus
    and attention to detail.” – This is why pitchers sometimes come back with better velocity than before TJ, the rehab really focuses their training in a way that they have never done before. With TJ you just have to hope that our guys are not the 10% group where it doesn’t work. Can’t wait to see him and Clay on the mound getting past that giant hurdle.

    • Also, the chance of another problem is high among pitchers who have had TJ.

      • Yep, the best predictor of future DL stints is past DL time. The person who comes up with a method to predict pitcher arm injuries is going to be very rich. It’ll probably come from outside the MLB field, like a biomechanics guy or something.

        • There are some deliveries and arm slots that teams look at to determine future arm injuries, that is when you see teams overhauling pitchers.

          • yeah but most of that is bunk. There really isn’t any proof that the dreaded inverted “W” is bad. At least publicly, no one has shown anything that holds up to larger N study. It seams like teams are on to something when they have a stretch of luck, but then bam a bunch of TJ happen. The innings increase, pitch counts, etc don’t really tell us anything other than just making common sense.

        • It can darned near predicted by checking a kid’s background and his mechanics. I listened to Dr. Andrews discuss the causes for a UCL injury, and he says it is mainly due to overworking young guys before they are fully developed. He says they all need an off SEASON, not just a couple of weeks of rest. The focus is to train those coaching travel teams particularly.

          • i read his article on it and it is clearly a good theory, but I have seen no data suggesting it can predict anything. All these kids throw too much as teens,

            • Did you listen to his interview ? Doesn’t sound like it.

              • No, I read his published article based on his theory. Please share any evidence that he or you have that predicts arm injuries in young pitchers, the entire MLB community will write you a blank check. His theory is that lack of rest and year round pitching is the cause for the increase in TJ. That in no way means that there is a method for predicting which guys get hurt and which guys do not. I’m talking about a mathematically tested method to take a group of 100 young pitchers and significantly predict the injury group at a later age. That does not exist and if it did it would be groundbreaking.

              • BTW, i agree with his theories, but they are unproven

                • Yes, his theories based on being the leading surgeon in that field, are certainly unproven. I am pretty sure he just was spouting nonsense when he was being interviewed. You stick to your own opinions, I will pay attention to people like him. If you just like being a contrarian, fine. Stay with it.

                  • What are you talking about??? I said several times that I AGREE with his theories. A surgeon saying what he thinks is happening does not equal proof that it is. That is not how science works. My original comment was about the discovery of a way to predict injuries, Andrews comments are nothing of that sort. He is talking about why we see more injuries and perhaps how to prevent them, not about predicting them. You have accused me of disagreeing with something that I said I agree with.

                    BTW, we have had strict pitch counts, rest schedules and inning restrictions for a decade and TJ surgeries have increased. Andrews and colleagues are likely on to something about the damage being already done. Thus, it is likely that the only “cure” is limiting youth pitching. However, teams don’t control this and a methodology to predict injury risk would be exceptionally valuable.

                    • I told you that he said they can look at a young prospects work load as a high school and a travel team pitcher, then his current mechanics, and pretty much know there will be a problem. That isn’t science, that is an experience based analysis. Good enough for me.

    • He has been throwing from 120′ so I don’t think throwing off of the mound is going to test his arm that much, more likely, can he cross the plate or is he going to hit the bull with a hundred mph fastball.

      • I don’t think that long toss is at the same effort as throwing off the mound though. If something is going to pop it will be at near max effort.

        • I don’t think he is going to be throwing at max effort the first couple of sessions, I would think they will build up to that, I could be wrong and maybe he will cut it loose.

  • Two totally different scenarios, the Pirates don’t need Taillon, the Nats needed Strasburg. The Pirates have rushed players to the majors before, Alvarez, Polanco, but they were not pitchers. In this case IMO, how he progresses with his health and in game results will determine when he gets to Pit, not the Pirates position in the pennant race.

    • Ross Detwiler took Stephen Strasburg’s place in the playoff rotation for Game 4, which the Nationals won, 2-1. Stephen Strasburg would not have changed the outcome in that series any more favorably had he been rostered.

      But you don’t remember that, the Washington media didn’t choose to fold that into their narrative, and the average Washington fan didn’t pay enough attention to really understand the difference.

      You’re lying to yourself if you believe that Pirate fans wouldn’t act the same way if Taillon had been called up, performed successfully, and then was shut down prior to the playoffs.

      I think Tim’s article is very, very well done.

  • The situation to me is a little different and better for the Pirates in that everyone isn’t expecting and needing meaningful innings in the majors from Taillon like it was for Strasburg. Anything they get from Taillon is a luxury. Also, the Pirates have two other options at the same level who are further along in Kingham and Sampson so that adds to the patience you can have.

  • Monsoon Harvard
    January 14, 2015 11:28 am

    Well they will obviously not have the Strasburg problem since Taillon is not the ace of the staff, or even on the staff. The public outrage of having the ace of the staff sit down during the pennant run in September/October was certainly understandable.
    I like working him in as a reliever too.

  • Taillon kinda seems like an ideal “ease into the majors via the bullpen for the stretch run” candidate. Might allow for him to pitch the whole season and give him this whole year to REALLY get his groove back since it usually takes a year of health for a pitcher to really get his command back after TJ. at least that’s the old rule of thumb.

    • I agree–start him late, skip a start here or there if need be, and have him available for bullpen work late if there’s a need.

    • Problem with that he will, unless they really change something, start for the majority of the year once he does begin playing games. So he will get stretched out and work his arm into starting shape, so then near the end of the year telling him to pitch in relief changes a lot of him. Out of the pen, he likely tries to ramp up the FB speed as he isnt throwing multiple innings. That isnt something PIT sounds like it wants to do with the “conservative” approach. All signs point to them sitting him early in the year to allow him to start later, as opposed to shutting him down as a SP and telling him to be a relief man. NH sounds pretty concrete in caring more for Taillon being quality longterm than his next 10-12 months.

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