JAMESON TAILLON, RIGHT HANDED PITCHER
Born: November 18, 1991
Height: 6′ 6″
Drafted: 1st Round, 2nd Overall, 2010
How Acquired: Draft
High School: The Woodlands HS (The Woodlands, TX)
Agent: Hendricks Brothers
WTM’s PLAYER PROFILE
|The Pirates selected Taillon with the second pick in the draft. It became clear long before draft day that the Nationals would use the first pick to take Bryce Harper, leaving the bulk of draft speculation focused on the Pirates’ pick. Taillon was almost universally viewed as the second best talent in the draft, a little ahead of high school shortstop Manny Machado and well ahead of everybody else. Early on, most observers believed the Pirates would select a lower-ceiling (and cheaper) college pitcher, either one of two lefthanders (Drew Pomeranz and Chris Sale) or righthander Deck McGuire. This speculation seemed to come from mediots who were unable to draw distinctions between the current administration and that of Dave Littlefield, who would undoubtedly have taken a college pitcher. Ultimately, the choice came down to Taillon and Machado, with the two college lefties as possible fallbacks. The selection of Taillon ran counter to GM Neal Huntington’s oft-stated reservations about selecting high school pitchers in round one, an indication that the Pirates considered Taillon’s ceiling to be high enough to justify the risk.
Taillon’s offerings were widely discussed on the internet. His fastball at the time sat in the 92-96 range and has reached 98. He threw a hard curve with a big break that was considered a second plus pitch. His slider needed work and, in fact, he ultimately stopped throwing it. Like most prep pitchers, he hadn’t had to throw a changeup much. Like most HS pitchers, he’ll have to work on the latter. Some commentators, such as Baseball America and Perfectgame, considered him among the best HS pitching prospects ever, with BA rating him the 17th best draft prospect of the past twenty years. His ceiling is that of a number one starter, potential that the Pirates then lacked at the major or minor league level (that was before they drafted Gerrit Cole). The Pirates signed him on deadline day for a bonus of $6.5M. He signed too late to pitch in the minors in 2010, but instead went to fall instructional league.
Taillon opened the season in extended spring training, but made a much-ballyhooed debut with West Virginia in late April. He spent the season in the rotation, with strict pitch counts designed to keep his innings down. He pitched mostly as expected, except that his fastball at times was surprisingly hittable. Opponents hit .249 against him with nine HRs, which is good but not dominant. The problem seemed to stem largely from Taillon getting pitches up, which was a concern in HS. His curve was mostly unhittable, but he generally didn’t throw it a lot in order to focus on fastball command. His velocity was mid-90s, as advertised. His other offerings still need some work. Although it wasn’t overwhelming, most observers seemed to consider his debut season a success.
Taillon had a puzzling season at Bradenton. He got off to a strong start, posting a 1.69 ERA in the first month, with more than a strikeout per inning. After that, his ERA at Bradenton was 4.39 and his K rate dropped substantially. He didn’t allow all that many baserunners, but when he got hit he tended to get hit hard, and all at once. He maintained his mid-90s fastball and excellent curve, and according to at least some sources his change was good at times. There was no shortage of attempts to discern the problem. The usual explanations were that either the team had him heavily focused on fastball command or that he tried to throw the ball by hitters whenever he got in a tough spot. The Pirates promoted him to Altoona for three starts anyway and he dominated there.
Taillon returned to Altoona and made 19 starts there plus one relief appearance, then moved up to Indianapolis for his final six starts. The results were somewhat similar to 2012, as he usually got good results and drew rave reviews from scouts, but didn’t put up the sort of playstation numbers that fans expect from top prospects. At times, Taillon struggled a little with his control and at times he seemed a little too hittable. His velocity, however, sat consistently in the mid-90s, topping out in the upper-90s, and scouts gave very high marks to his curve. His changeup also continued to improve, which was reflected in the fact that he had no platoon split at all. Overall he was a flyball pitcher. Taillon’s failure to put up awe-inspiring numbers repeats the pattern that occurred with Gerrit Cole, whose minor league performance raised even more questions that Taillon’s. After watching Cole rapidly improve in his first partial major league season, I’m inclined to chalk both up to the learning process in the minors, which with the Pirates emphasizes development and preparation for the majors more than results in the minors.
It was widely anticipated that Taillon would follow the same path to the majors as Gerrit Cole did in 2013, but that journey got derailed when he had elbow soreness during spring training. After getting two opinions, he decided to have Tommy John surgery. That cost him 2014. He seemed to he recovering on schedule in 2015, throwing very well in exhibition games, but before he could debut in the minors he had surgery for a hernia, costing him another year.
Taillon opened the season at Indianapolis and hit the ground running. From his very first start, he showed better command than he had before he got hurt. He made ten starts in AAA, dominating in most of them, walking almost nobody. Baseball America ranked him as the eighth best prospect in an International League that had a remarkably strong pool of top prospects. The Pirates called Taillon up in June and he made his first major league start on June 8. In his next start, he threw eight shutout innings. He spent the rest of the season in the Pirates’ rotation, except for a brief disabled list stay in July for “shoulder fatigue,” which was really just a chance to get him a breather. The team was careful with his pitch counts, but otherwise his two years out of game competition had little impact. He finished with strong numbers across the board, including historically good control for a rookie. He had some minor gopher ball trouble, allowing 13, but his groundball rate of 52.4% was excellent. His xFIP, 3.44, was almost identical to his ERA, so the advanced metrics didn’t see anything flukish about the results he got. Taillon’s fastball averaged 94 mph, topping out around 97. He threw more two-seam than four-seam fastballs, a change for him, and it resulted in a 52.4% groundball rate. According to the data at Brooks Baseball, his curve and change were both highly effective pitches.
Taillon’s season was one of extremes. He started off getting excellent results, with a 2.08 ERA in five April starts. His first start in May was a rough one and, shortly afterward, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. He underwent surgery and, remarkably, returned to the Pirates just 40 days later. His first five starts went very well, with a 1.98 ERA. After that, though, he started getting hit hard and consistently struggling to put hitters away. He also had uncharacteristic control problems in some games. Over his last 14 starts, he had a 5.96 ERA and opponents hit .304 against him. The truth was probably in the middle somewhere, as the advanced metrics didn’t support his ERA before he started struggling and he probably wasn’t nearly as bad as that 5.96 ERA indicated late in the season. Taillon was hurt by a high .352 BABIP and, alone among the Pirates’ top five starters, he had an xFIP (3.89) that was significantly better than his ERA.
Taillon’s season started much like the previous one ended. Through the end of May, he had an ERA of 4.53. At that point, he started throwing fewer fastballs. In 2017, he threw fastballs 64% of the time. In April and May of 2018, he threw them 67% of the time. Starting in June, his fastball percentage was 53%. The difference came from him cutting back sharply on sinkers and starting to throw a slider. In those four months his ERA was 2.63. He held the opposing team to three earned runs or fewer in all of his last 22 starts. Taillon had a little trouble with the longball, allowing 20, but he cut his walks and held opponents to an OBP on the season of .296. He also had some trouble with left-handed hitters, allowing them a .737 OPS compared to .617 by right-handed hitters.
Taillon over the last two-thirds of the 2018 season became the pitcher the Pirates were hoping they’d get when they drafted him. It’s somewhat disconcerting how it came about, as the Pirates have preached a fastball/sinker-heavy approach to pitching. Both Gerrit Cole and Charlie Morton immediately became more effective after moving to other teams and cutting back on their fastball usage, but the Pirates persisted in their approach into the 2018 season. Hopefully, they’ve learned something from Taillon’s experience. It could have a significant impact on Mitch Keller, whose repertoire is very similar to Taillon’s prior to the latter picking up the slider.
Taillon’s 2019 season was a disaster. He didn’t pitch badly in the early going; he just wasn’t quite as good as the previous year. In early May, he went on the injured list with an elbow strain. He didn’t respond to rest and went into surgery that the Pirates hoped would just be on his right flexor tendon, but it was determined that he needed a second Tommy John surgery.
Taillon will miss all of the 2020 season. More ominously, the track record for pitchers having a second TJ surgery is nowhere near what it is for a first one. About a third never make it back at all. The ones who do return, although they’re often as effective as they were before, aren’t able to handle the same workloads as before and see shortened careers. On top of all that, by the time he returns Taillon will have only two years remaining until free agency.
|Signing Bonus: $6,500,000
MiLB Debut: 2011
MLB Debut: 6/8/2016
MiLB FA Eligible: N/A
MLB FA Eligible: 2022
Rule 5 Eligible: Protected
Added to 40-Man: 11/20/2014
Options Remaining: 1 (USED: 2015, 2016)
MLB Service Time: 3.110
|June 7, 2010: Drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1st round, 2nd overall pick; signed on August 16.
November 20, 2014: Contract purchased by the Pittsburgh Pirates.