Samad Taylor got a taste of the big leagues this offseason.
Playing eight games for the Dominican Winter League’s Tigres del Licey, Taylor took infield drills with Erik Aybar, stood on the dugout rail between Hanley Ramirez and Emilio Bonafacio, and hit batting practice alongside top Mets prospect Ronny Mauricio.
It was the closest thing to Major League Baseball without actually being there, Taylor said, but the 23-year-old wants the real thing. After the best season of his minor league career, Taylor was left off Toronto’s 40-man roster last fall. If the Rule 5 Draft hadn’t been canceled by the MLB lockout, he would’ve been a top name available. But instead, Taylor stayed in the Blue Jays organization, working at the doorstep of the big leagues to find his edge, earn his way on to the 40-man, and eventually to Toronto.
“I won’t take it from myself,” Taylor said. “Last year was a success. But was there more there? 100%.”
It was almost too perfect when, a few days into the minor-league season, the Bisons’ coaching staff came to him with an opportunity for development, that area for improvement he’d been searching for. Among the spreadsheets and heat maps bandied about in the meeting with Taylor, there was one commonality: his full-count approach wasn’t cutting it. Though his Double A numbers were solid in 3-2 counts, it was clear Taylor was auto-swinging. He knew it, pitchers realized it, and as the 2021 season went on the results weren’t pretty. For a player with an 11% career minor-league walk rate, the 3-2 approach was drastically off brand.
Lucky for Taylor, the solution was simple. Manager Casey Candaele, alongside coaches Devon White, Corey Hart, and others, wanted the 23-year-old to stop treating full counts like defensive at-bats, fearing the strikeout and chasing because of it. Pitchers were targeting him with fastballs inside and soft stuff away, so Taylor was tasked with shrinking the zone. If he took a fastball for strike three, so be it, he’d have to live with the missed opportunities.
In an April game against Rochester, Taylor found himself in one of those full counts. He’d fallen behind 0-2, but took three missed pitches to work it full. The righty blew on his hands before stepping back into the box, warming them amid the standard Upstate New York April weather. As the pitch came in, Taylor stood upright, knowing it wasn’t in his shrunk zone right out of the pitcher’s hand. The free pass he earned was Taylor's second of the inning and his fourth of the game.
Taylor has made plenty of adjustments throughout his career, he said, and they almost never work immediately. But 30 games into his 2022 season, the Blue Jays prospect has the second-best full-count OPS on the Bisons and a .500 on-base percentage in those situations.
“He’s done a really outstanding job at it,” Candaele said. “It’s really just being more patient and trying to not chase out of the zone. Sometimes you get so excited, you want to do damage, you want to do so much for the team you get over-excited.”
The subtle full count adjustment is just an example of what Taylor's willing to do to reach the big leagues. Did being left off the 40-man last fall sting? Yup. But it didn't change the 23-year-old's approach. If anything, it honed it.
Over the last two seasons, Taylor's played four different defensive positions and he's improved his stolen base efficiency each year, carrying a 92.3% success rate so far in 2022. In an organization filled with versatile infield/outfield types in the upper minors, Taylor's standing out.
He's focused on finding the small adjustments—like the full count approach—to subtly improve every day, to make himself the infield/outfield type the Blue Jays decide to call up. He doesn't think about the 40-man roster or the big leagues, that's the easiest way to get in a rut, but knowing he's just one call away still brings a smile to his face.
"I try my hardest to not even worry about the next step," Taylor said, "I gotta handle what's right in front of me, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't excited."