The Pittsburgh Pirates haven’t had an ace pitcher in the majors since Doug Drabek left the team after the 1992 season. When the Pirates drafted Jameson Taillon in the first round of the 2010 draft last year, the hope was for that to change. Taillon was regarded as one of the best draft prospects of the last 20 years, and with his strong curveball and upper 90s fastball, he was seen as a guy who could move through the system quickly for a high school pitcher.
Taillon finished his first pro season this past week, ending up with a 3.98 ERA in 92.2 innings, along with an exceptional 97:22 K/BB ratio. The ERA might have been a little higher than some expected, although it doesn’t really reflect Taillon’s skill level, as he was limited due to his development plan.
“We’ve made progress with him understanding himself as a pitcher rather than a thrower,” Pirates farm director Kyle Stark said. ”The things that got him drafted aren’t necessarily the things that are going to get him to the big leagues.”
Taillon was highly regarded out of the draft for having a fastball that could touch 99 MPH, which combined with his plus curveball gave him a great 1-2 punch. However, the fastball was left up in the zone too often, which can play in high school and even the lower levels of the minors, but won’t be as effective in the majors. The biggest thing the Pirates worked on this year was teaching Taillon how to drive the ball down through the zone. He threw the pitch in the 94-96 MPH range this year, focusing more on location and less on velocity. The new approach won’t limit him to dialing up the upper 90s fastball in the future, and he hit that level this year, touching 97-98 MPH at times early in the season.
Taillon made some strides with his fastball location throughout the year, although there’s still work to be done. I spoke with one scout who questioned whether Taillon would ever be able to throw the fastball at knee level on a consistent basis, due to his drop and drive delivery. Without the fastball at the knee level, Taillon will still be a good pitcher. However, throwing a fastball for strikes at the knees, along with his strong curveball, could make him one of the best pitchers in the game.
“In this league, hitters will make you pay if you don’t (get the ball down) and if you don’t execute your pitches,” Taillon said. “I feel like I’ve gotten a lot better at it, and I see the importance of pitching for effect, pitching not to throw strikes all the time, pitching in for balls, brush them off, as well as being down in the zone. I’m still getting better on it. There’s always room for improvement, but I feel I’ve gotten a lot better.”
One concern this year that was raised came with the amount of innings Taillon pitched. There were some claims that the Pirates were being too conservative with Taillon, and not getting him ready to eventually pitch 200 innings a year in the pros. The Pirates are sticking to their approach with the young pitching prospect, and aren’t concerned about the lack of innings in 2011.
“We had a target goal in mind based on what he did the year before,” Stark said. ”It’s also, 18-23 are your most critical years on the physical side of the pitcher. I’d much rather be more aggressive on the back-end than on the front-end. Our job is to get him to be able to throw 200 innings in Pittsburgh, and he’s in West Virginia, so we’ve got a little bit of time left before we get to that point.”
Taillon will still add some innings during instructional leagues, which begin at the end of the month. He also saw innings in extended Spring Training, so it’s not as if he only threw 92.2 innings this year. However, his inning totals aren’t unlike other prep pitchers. Zack Wheeler, taken with the 6th overall pick in 2009, threw 58.2 innings in his first pro season. Tyler Matzek, taken in the 11th round that year, threw 89.1 innings. Shelby Miller, the 19th round pick of the 2009 season, threw 104.1 innings. Jacob Turner, taken 9th in 2009, threw 115.1 innings. The idea that pitchers are coming out of high school and throwing significantly more innings than Taillon is really unfounded.
Aside from Taillon’s fastball and curveball, he’s been working on his changeup. A high school pitcher with a 99 MPH fastball and a major league curveball doesn’t really need to throw a changeup, so the pitch is under developed. He didn’t get much of a chance to throw the changeup this year, as his main focus was fastball command.
“It’s still got a ways to go, just like every pitch,” Taillon said. ”I’m feeling a lot more confident throwing a 1-0 changeup, or a 2-0 changeup. I feel like it makes my fastball play a lot better.”
If you’re looking for an example of changeup development from a top high school prospect, look no further than Gerrit Cole, the first overall pick by the Pirates in the 2011 draft. Cole came out of high school with an upper 90s fastball and a great slider. He lacked a changeup, and that story didn’t change until prior to the 2011 season, when he developed a plus changeup. That same timeline gives Taillon until the 2013 season to develop the pitch. As for Cole and his changeup, Taillon is looking forward to working with the other future ace next year.
“Personally I’m excited,” Taillon said about the selection of Cole this year. “He’s a good guy to learn from. I know he’s got a good changeup, so I can see how he throws that.”
Heading in to the off-season, the changeup will be a focus. The Pirates will also focus on Taillon’s conditioning and strength, to ensure that he can get to the point where he can eventually throw 200 innings. Taillon plans on going to both strength camps the Pirates offer to help in this area. Repeating his delivery and working on his fastball command will continue to be priorities, especially in instructional leagues.
When grading the first pro season of Taillon, people are obviously going to look at the numbers. The traditional numbers of a won/loss percentage (2-3 for Taillon) and an ERA (3.98) don’t really tell the story of his season. He rarely went five innings, which never really qualified him for a win. He was also focused on fastball command, which limited his use of his excellent curveball. Had he thrown the curveball more often, he could have easily put up an ERA below 2.00, as he would have been using a major league pitch against low-A hitters. However, the priority was placed on his long term success, rather than his short term stats.
As far as the overall results, the general feeling is that Taillon’s first year was a success with how he developed on and off the field, and how he finished off the year. His fastball location and command was looking much better at the end of the year, which might explain why he finished by allowing two earned runs in 17 innings over his final four starts, with a 20:7 K/BB ratio.
”He’s learned a lot,” West Virginia manager Gary Robinson said of Taillon’s first season. ”I think he’s in a perfect spot now to go to instructional league and pick up a few things to jump start him in to Spring Training. You never know where this kid may end up. He’s a competitor, he’s a worker, he’s a good teammate. He’s good to have on your club, not just because he has a good arm.”
“I’ve come a long way on the field,” Taillon said. “Mentality-wise, delivery-wise, and I’ve grown a lot off the field too, just being on my own my whole first year. It’s been a good year.”