In 2013, the Pittsburgh Pirates saw Gerrit Cole make the jump to the majors in mid-June. By the end of the season, Cole was starting to look like the ace he was projected to become when he was taken first overall in the 2011 draft. The Pirates are hoping for similar results from fellow top pitching prospect Jameson Taillon in 2014. Taillon, taken second overall in 2010, will start the 2014 season in Triple-A, and could very well be in Pittsburgh by mid-season. Just like Cole, Taillon has the upside as a top of the rotation starter.
The right-hander went to the Arizona Fall League over the off-season in an attempt to get some additional innings. He threw 147.1 innings during the regular season, and was hoping to boost his innings count in the AFL to prepare for the 2014 season. Gerrit Cole threw 185.1 innings in 2013 between Triple-A and the majors, not counting his playoff innings where he added 11 more frames. If Taillon has the same workload in 2014, he would see an increase of about 50 innings over his 2013 totals.
Unfortunately, Taillon went down in his second inning of work in the AFL with a mild groin strain. The Pirates pulled him out of the AFL as a precaution, and he was recovered from the injury after a few weeks.
“Whenever it happened, it felt like some fire tugging in there,” Taillon said. “So I think we just erred on the side of caution, and in a couple of weeks I felt pretty good, back to normal. That’s an injury I don’t want to mess with ever again, so I’m being pretty preventative for it.”
Taillon can still see an increase in his innings from where he was in 2013. One thing he’s been doing to prepare for the added workload is working out and adding muscle. He’s added 7-8 pounds, and is up to 245 pounds now.
“I’ve just been getting after it in the weight room,” Taillon said. “Trying to put on some weight so I can go as many innings as I want this year.”
He said he still feels loose and limber, and that he won’t ever sacrifice that for added muscle. He has already starting throwing, starting in mid-December with his normal program. Taillon trains every year during the off-season in Texas with a lot of players from around the league. That includes players in the Pirates’ system who live in Texas, such as Zack Dodson, Stetson Allie, and Jared LaKind, to name a few. Taillon also invites other teammates from outside of Texas to come join him in training.
“I’ve been known to take people in and let them crash on my couch if they want to come,” Taillon said. “[Tyler] Waldron did it for a bit last year. Get out of the cold weather.”
Now the question is whether Taillon can be the next Gerrit Cole, and make the same jump with similar success to what Cole saw in 2013.
“That’d be nice. He had a great year,” Taillon said. “I kept in touch with him all throughout it, so I kind of know how it works. It will be nice to have him, who’s gone through it. At the same time, we’re different, so we’ll see what happens. But that wouldn’t be the worst scenario, that’s for sure.”
To get an idea of where Taillon is at, let’s review the progress of his four pitches.
The key to Taillon’s fastball has always been his ability to keep the ball down. When he came into pro ball, he had a big drop in his delivery. That led to him flattening the ball out and leaving it up in the zone. The Pirates have worked with him on reducing that drop, and he has seen progress. He can now throw at opposing hitters’ knees, rather than leaving a 98 MPH fastball up in the zone to be crushed. He’s always going to have some drop in his delivery, and he’ll have the occasional problems of getting too flat with his fastball.
Most of what Taillon discussed with Cole involved clubhouse and travel information — things you don’t usually think about at first when you think about adjusting to the majors. But Cole also gave Taillon some advice on pitching in the majors.
“As far as pitching, keep the ball down, mix it up, don’t be middle,” Taillon said. “Obviously they’re a lot better up there, but you’ve got to keep it simple and do what you do best.”
Taillon’s best pitch is his fastball, which sits in the mid-90s and tops out at 99. You can expect him to work off the four-seam fastball, just like Cole worked off his fastball to set up his other pitches when he came up.
A big focus for Taillon the last two years has been the development of his changeup. As a high schooler with a fastball that could hit upper 90s and a great curve, Taillon didn’t have much need for a changeup. In 2012, the Pirates challenged him to throw 20 changeups per start while he was in High-A. That allowed him to get comfortable with the pitch, and Taillon saw big improvements with the change in 2013. The addition of a solid changeup helps limit mistakes with his other offerings.
“That’s just an equalizer for me,” Taillon said of the changeup. “If I show I have that early in the game, it takes so much pressure off of my fastball. Pitches I wasn’t getting away with a couple of years ago, I’ll get away with now, just because I have it in the back of their head. I’ll throw it in any count, which is a big pressure reliever for me.”
Since Taillon will always have a bit of a drop in his delivery, and will always be at risk of leaving a ball up in the zone, it’s good to have the changeup to keep hitters honest. Rather than sitting back and waiting for a pitch to crush, hitters have to respect that Taillon is now more than just a guy with a plus curve and an upper 90s fastball that leads to the occasional mistake.
Another thing Taillon added back in 2012 was a two-seam fastball. He had the pitch in high school, but the Pirates took it away after the draft, having him focus on commanding the four-seam fastball. He was going to work on the pitch more in the AFL, but didn’t get the chance due to his injury. To make up for that, he has been working the pitch into his throwing program a little more often this year.
“That’s almost an equalizer too,” Taillon said. “You show something that moves in, it’s always in their mind. Got something on the curveball that’s moving away, a two-seam that will run in, so it’s good to show them different looks. The higher up you go, the more looks you want to give them.”
Once again, adding a pitch to help take the focus off the fastball keeps hitters honest. Taillon’s numbers early in his minor league career weren’t what you’d expect from a future ace. However, at the time he was a guy with a curveball that looked like a plus pitch at times, and a fastball that was often flat and up in the zone. Not only has he reduced the tendency to be up in the zone, but he’s added a changeup and a two-seam fastball since then, which makes it harder for hitters to lay off the curve and sit on the fastball.
Another benefit to the two-seam fastball is that he can use the pitch to get quick ground ball outs. That will keep his pitch count low, allowing him to pitch deeper into games.
The big secondary pitch for Taillon is his curveball. That is going to be his out-pitch in the majors, just like Gerrit Cole’s hard slider. Taillon’s curve is more of a slurve, sitting in the 83-84 MPH range. At times he has struggled to command the pitch, but he has seen improvements in that area throughout his career.
“I’ve always had a good curveball, but I feel that the higher I’ve gone up, the more I’ve been able to command it,” Taillon said. “The more I’ve been able to pick and choose where I want to throw it. First pitch strike, in the dirt 0-2, which is really big because when you’re in Triple-A you’ve got to be able to throw an 0-0 breaker for a strike. Obviously when you’re in the big leagues also. This past year I felt I was really solid on it.”
Top of the Rotation Upside
The biggest knock on Taillon is that he doesn’t have the numbers you’d expect from a future top of the rotation starter. That was the same knock against Gerrit Cole, and we saw how that worked out. Cole started the 2013 season getting crushed and dealing with bad control in Triple-A. He ended the season looking like an ace in the majors. Taillon has struggled at times in his career — getting hit hard in West Virginia, a poor start in Bradenton in 2012, a few horrible starts in Altoona in 2013 — but if you look at the stuff and not the stats you’ll see why he’s got a great upside.
He’s a guy who has constantly been evolving since he came into pro ball. He’s no longer a two-pitch guy with command issues on both pitches. He’s now got a good changeup, he’s working on improving the two-seam fastball, he has done a better job of keeping the four-seam fastball down, and he’s throwing the curveball like a plus pitch. That’s the makeup of a future top of the rotation starter. When it all comes together for Taillon, just like it eventually did for Cole, the top of the rotation numbers will finally come.