June 8, 2016 was a long time coming for Pirates pitcher Jameson Taillon. Pittsburgh drafted him second in the 2010 draft, less than a month after he graduated from high school and six months after that, he was the No. 8 prospect in baseball, according to Baseball Prospectus, and No. 11 according to Baseball America. Either way, Taillon was on the fast track to the big leagues.
The story didn’t unfold according to plan. Taillon was always good, but never quite great, at any level in the minors over his first few seasons. He progressed up the ladder, but he never made a huge jump, and simultaneously fell in the prospect rankings each season. Then disaster struck when he needed Tommy John surgery in 2013, costing him all of the next two seasons.
Taillon returned to the mound this season, starting the year with Triple A Indianapolis. From his first start of the season—a six-inning, one-run, six-strikeout win over Toledo (Tigers)—he pitched like the frontline ace he was supposed to be. In fact, he pitched better than he ever had before. Taillon dominated International League hitters for two months, best evidenced by his 61/6 K/BB ratio in 61 2/3 innings. He finally bullied his way to the majors to make his first career start on June 8—six years and one day after the Pirates drafted him, sandwiched between Bryce Harper and Manny Machado. It wasn’t supposed to take this long, but now that Taillon has arrived, he should be here to stay.
The 24-year-old made his long-awaited debut against the Mets in Pittsburgh. He went six innings, allowing three runs on six hits, including one homer, striking out three and walking two. All told, it was a solid, though not spectacular debut, one from which Taillon will be able to draw more positives than negatives.
We’re not here to make any grand pronouncements about Taillon’s fantasy value the rest of the season, because that would be incredibly premature. (He was also sent back down to Indianapolis after his start, but he’ll likely be back with the team by the end of the month.) Instead, we’re going to look at what he did against the Mets to try to get a sense of how he wants to attack major league hitters, and the tactics he will use to execute that overall strategy.
The Mets loaded the lineup with lefties, with Alejandro De Aza, Michael Conforto, Neil Walker, James Loney, Asdrubal Cabrera and Ty Kelly, but we’ll start with one of the few righties, Yoenis Cespedes. This was an at-bat with two outs and nobody on in the first inning, and lasted eight pitches. Let’s take a look at a few of the more telling pitches.
Taillon went with a first-pitch fastball to get ahead 0–1. He missed his spot by the width of the plate, but Cespedes was taking all the way.
On 0–1, we get a great look at Taillon’s calling card, and the pitch that will be responsible for making him a star, assuming he becomes one. A lot of pitchers in today’s MLB can sit in the mid-90s with their fastball. Few can pair that with a 12-to-6 curve as devastating as this.
That’s as sharp a true curveball as you’re going to see, and this is a guy in his first career start. We’ll circle back to the pitch a little later to show you just how much Taillon trusts it.
A good battle with Cespedes ensued from there, with Taillon pitching mostly by the book. On 0–2, he went up and in with a fastball, then came back with another curve on 1–2. Cespedes fouled off a series of pitches, and took one fastball off the plate away, before we got action on a 2–2 fastball spotted beautifully on the outside corner, if not actually a touch off the plate.
Weak contact, bad luck. Cespedes may have gotten on base, but Taillon won this one.
Let’s fast forward to the third inning and kill two birds with one stone. This was Alejandro De Aza’s second plate appearance. De Aza is, of course, a lefty, and one with speed who hits in front of Conforto, Cespedes and Walker. This will give us a little insight into what Taillon wants to do against a leadoff man against whom he lacks the platoon advantage.
Taillon starts De Aza off with a fastball, busting him in on his hands for strike one.
He doubles up on the inside fastball, and De Aza bunts the second one foul for strike two. Taillon again goes by the book, missing up with a fastball on 0-2, and coming back with a curveball on 1–2, which De Aza fouls away. We then get our first look at Taillon’s changeup. It’s his third-best pitch, and one that certainly needs some refinement. If you ask De Aza, however, he’ll probably tell you it’s already pretty good.
We told you we’d circle back to Taillon’s curveball to show how much confidence he has in the pitch. This the final pitch from Taillon to Conforto in his second plate appearance.
Notice anything that might seem odd about a rookie throwing a curveball in this instance? How about the fact that the count is 3–2 and Cespedes is on deck? Taillon feels so good about his curveball that he’s willing to go to it in a fastball count with one of the league’s premier power hitters on deck in the first start of his career. He breaks it back out in a 1–1 offering to Cespedes. Pay particular attention to the batter, here. The fact that he buckles lets you know that Taillon’s sequencing is working.
He comes back with a 1–2 fastball that would make Noah Syndergaard proud, hitting his spot up and on the outside corner to induce a lazy fly ball to center to end the inning.
Alright, enough fawning over Taillon. It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows in his debut. Taillon is a big guy at 6' 5" and 240 pounds. On top of that, he has a much longer arm sweep before delivering the pitch than the average pitcher. That can make him more susceptible to leaping out in front of his pitches, forcing his arm to drag. That invariably leads to a much higher pitch than desired. If you’re lucky, you miss up out of the zone. If you’re unlucky, you offer up a meatball. Here’s one of the former, with Taillon facing Ty Kelly in the second inning.
This is going to happen to Taillon. It’s simply comes with the territory of being has tall as he is, and combining that with his particular motion. Here, unfortunately for Taillon, is an example of the latter.
This pitch is supposed to be, at the very least, away, and preferably low. It drifts back over the middle of the plate and is about belt high. Taillon wouldn’t have been able to get away with a pitch like this at Indianapolis, let alone in the majors.
So there you have it. We saw far more good than bad from Taillon in his major league debut. He threw 91 pitches and didn’t seem to tire much as his pitch count rose, a good sign that the Pirates won’t have to baby him the rest of the season. The 24-year-old has a bright future ahead of him, and it starts this year. There’s some debate about his sticking in the rotation, but with Juan Nicasio and Jeff Locke struggling, the Pirates shouldn’t have trouble finding a spot for one of the best pitching prospects in baseball.