On July 25th, Jameson Taillon took the mound on the road in St. Lucie. The right-hander gave up four runs on eight hits in six innings. It was an unimpressive stat line, which has been an alarming trend for the top pitching prospect this season. I spoke to Bradenton Marauders pitching coach Mike Steele the day after the start, and his response was a bit surprising.
“It was his best outing of the year,” Steele said of the start. “Sound crazy to you?”
Yeah, it did sound a bit crazy. There was a silver lining to the start. Taillon did strike out six batters in six innings, which is one of the few times recently that he’s struck out a batter an inning. But it’s hard to see how that start was the best of the year for Taillon at the time, just looking at the numbers. But Steele was looking beyond the numbers.
“His failure was actually because of his decisions,” Steele said. “And that is like a win in and of itself, because he went out and he shook off to something that he probably shouldn’t have. He didn’t throw something because he thought he should throw it. He threw it because he wanted to throw it.”
Taillon has dealt with being indecisive this year. When he gets down in the count, or when he throws a bad pitch, he comes back with an attitude that he has to throw a strike. He stops trusting his stuff, and doesn’t go with the mentality that his stuff is good enough to make the necessary pitch. Without the confidence in his pitches, he’s not throwing them at 100 percent, which reduces the effectiveness of his stuff.
That wasn’t the case on July 25th. Taillon was commanding the fastball to both sides of the plate. His curveball was good, his changeup was on, and his delivery was good.
“It was everything, except for some poor decision-making,” Steele said. “He wasn’t indecisive. He didn’t 80% throw a breaking ball, or he didn’t 90% commit to his fastball in. He just 100% committed to everything and made a few bad decisions.”
Steele isn’t the only person who felt that was Taillon’s best start. Taillon felt the same way.
“I honestly thought [that start] was the best I’ve thrown the ball all year,” Taillon said the day after the outing. “Just delivery-wise, and spotting up. If I could take about three pitches back, I would. I felt like I threw it really well, and I’m seeing a lot of progress. I’ve made more decisions on my own. Just kind of listened to my gut, went with it. So now, after doing that, that’s kind of allowed us to get in to the pitch sequencing and how to set up hitters.”
The decision-making is key. Taillon would dabble with making decisions, but was afraid of making a mistake. He was doing what he thought he should do, rather than what he wanted to do. Lately, he’s done a much better job making those decisions on his own.
“You’re not going to be successful every time, but you start to learn ‘OK, I’m not going to do that, because that ball went really far’,” Steele said of Taillon learning from his mistakes.
Since that start, Taillon has pitched very well. In his four starts since the July 30th outing, Taillon has combined to give up three earned runs in 22 innings, with a 14:6 K/BB ratio. And today the Pirates announced that Taillon will move up to Double-A, making his debut with the Altoona Curve on Tuesday. Taillon is getting the promotion despite exceeding his 2011 innings total by 32.1 innings. On Sunday, Neil Huntington talked about what the team would consider in making the decision to promote Taillon.
“It’s that delicate balance of, do you take a guy at the end of his second full season and fatigue may be setting in a little bit, now you’re advancing a level,” Huntington said. “How do you respond to that both physically and fundamentally? Do you go ahead and make that challenge? Our guys are watching every start.”
“Are we seeing sings of fatigue, or is he still strong? Have you seen signs of a guy that can go up and have success or is he going up and battle and try and change and alter things? We’re watching closely. It’s nice to get that guy a quick taste of the next level in August. But you also don’t want to disrupt a lot of things that are going on. We’re keeping eyes on it and we’re opened minded to it. Absolutely.”
The 2012 season has been a mixed bag for the right-hander. He started off dominant. In his first seven starts, Taillon combined to give up six runs in 36.2 innings, with a 36:7 K/BB ratio. But Taillon then went on a rough stretch. Over his next six starts, the right hander was hit hard, giving up 28 earned runs in 31 innings.
“I’d say the difference back then is that I made pitches when I needed to,” Taillon said. “That’s what can define a start. One pitch, or one home run, one double, one walk can lead to a great start or a bad start. Back then guys were still getting on base, I was just getting out of stuff when I needed to.”
Since the rough stretch he has posted a 2.98 ERA in 57.1 innings, with a 36:20 K/BB ratio in ten starts. He’s had a few rough outings mixed in, including the July 25th start, and he’s not putting up the dominant strikeout numbers you’d expect from a top prospect.
“I thought it was kind of funny looking back, because I honestly, I feel better now through this rough stretch that I had, than I did back then as far as just delivery, off-speed stuff,” Taillon said of the difference between his first seven starts and now. “My off-speed stuff felt like it’s been really good throughout the summer. And back then I really felt like I was a one pitch pitcher, going at guys with my fastball. My curveball wasn’t feeling good early in the year. I kind of just threw it in the bag early in starts. Lately I’ve been using everything, just throwing it all for a strike.”
A big focus this year for Taillon has been improving the changeup. In his third start of the year, with the minor league pitching coordinators in town, Taillon was challenged to throw 15-20 changeups in the game, which amounts to 3-4 per inning. In focusing on throwing the changeup more often, the Pirates wanted Taillon to start trusting the pitch, and to get comfortable with it.
“I felt like I was being a little Jamie Moyer out there, throwing so many off-speed pitches,” Taillon joked about using the changeup in that first start. “But the best way to develop a pitch is to throw it. So every start I’ve gone out there and I’ve tried to throw 15-20 a start no matter what. Whether things are going good or they’re going bad. Whether it’s terrible or it’s good. Just throw it. It’s helped me a lot.”
The pitch has seen some major improvements this year. Taillon is disguising the pitch well, throwing it out of his fastball slot, and with good arm speed. Right now the changeup is seen as average, with the chance to be above-average or plus down the line. The changeup gives Taillon a three pitch mix, pairing it with his plus curveball and plus fastball. His fastball has been consistently in the 93-98 MPH range, touching 99, while his curveball has been sharp, and has been the source of a lot of his strikeouts.
“Not looking at the numbers, it’s been a big year for me just development wise,” Taillon said. “I’ve got three pitches that I throw for a strike. I’ve got confidence in all three, and now my [changeup has] come a long way. My curveballs are good, my fastball command has been good. It’s been an interesting year. I’ve gotten hit. I’ve also had my outings where I went seven shutout. So it’s just been about learning consistency.”
One concern with Taillon this year has been his lack of strikeouts. The right-hander has struck out 98 in 125 innings, which isn’t what you’d expect from a top pitching prospect with a fastball that can touch 99 MPH. But just throwing hard isn’t going to lead to a strikeout per inning, especially now when it seems like so many top pitching prospects are throwing mid-90s.
“You read stuff like what Beckett was doing when he was this age, and what some of those guys [were doing] back then. Nobody threw hard back then except for those guys,” Steele said of comparing Taillon to previous pitchers. “Everybody now, all of these kids coming out of high school, they’re seeing 94-95 at all of these different showcases and all of these different things. So by the time they get to high-A, these guys have been seeing 95 plus.”
Taillon’s three pitch mix should lead to more strikeouts, and a better ERA than his 3.82 mark, but it’s not automatic. He needs to know how to throw his pitches, and he needs more confidence while throwing them.
“[I’ve got] more confidence now, and feeling more comfortable being able to read hitters and what their plan is off of me,” Taillon said. “Being able to understand what they what to do off me, whether that’s ambush a fastball, or try to look the other way and have a good approach, see a bunch of pitches. I’m learning what to throw, when, really.”
“His development has been very good,” Huntington said. “His surface ERA may not what people are thinking a stud prospect should do. But he’s getting ground balls, he’s getting strikeouts, and he’s getting the ball over the plate. We’re pleased with how he’s developing and going.”
The Pirates have recently started to watch Taillon’s innings closely. He was removed after five starts and less than 65 pitches on August 4th. That was after he threw an extra side session prior to the start, and in the middle of a blowout victory. In his next two starts he was limited to five innings, although he did throw 91 pitches on Wednesday night.
This year has been a bit different for Taillon. Not only has he exceeded his 2011 innings total, but he’s also been allowed to go deeper in to starts. He’s been getting used to throwing deeper in the games, and how that impacts his pitches.
“Last year, have a rough start, you’re out after four or five. Have a good start, out after four or five,” Taillon said. “This year I feel like I can really go as deep as I can let myself go. I’m going to dictate how far I go. Whether I stay within my pitch limits and stuff.”
His fastball velocity has gotten better or stayed the same in the later innings, so he’s not seeing a drop off like some young pitchers experience. The feel for his changeup gets difficult in the later innings, although the feel for his curveball gets better. Now that he’s over his 2011 innings total, he will have to experience some of the same things, learning how his stuff is impacted later in the season as his innings total rises. Looking at the Altoona schedule, he should have about three starts left this year, which should give him a good taste of the next level before returning to Altoona at the start of next season.