With a void to fill in center field, the Kansas City Royals brought in Michael A. Taylor as a free agent last offseason. Then, he was known as a solid defender and a player who struggled at the plate in all but one of his seven years with the Washington Nationals. His 2017 season was his saving grace, as he put up a 104 OPS+ with 19 home runs and 53 RBIs in his age-26 campaign. The Royals were hopeful that in his age-30 season, Taylor could return to that form.
So, did he manage to do so? Not exactly. Taylor's bat fell in line with his normal career production (sans 2017). His defense, though, was even better than it was in his previous best year. Perhaps the spacious outfield of Kauffman Stadium contributed to that a bit but nevertheless, Taylor's 2.5 bWAR and 1.9 fWAR were comfortably the best of his career. He was rewarded with a two-year, $9 million contract that very well could keep him as a starter for 2022 and 2023. Should that be the case? Let's take a closer look at Taylor's 2021 and then decide.
At the plate
For his career, Taylor is a .239/.293/.386 hitter with a 79 OPS+ and a 79 wRC+. This season, he was a .244/.297/.356 hitter with a 76 OPS+ and a 77 wRC+. He was better in the first half of the year than the second, but he did miss some time late in the season due to family matters. That could have thrown his rhythm off but regardless, Taylor's bat wasn't very close to league average in 2021. His strikeout rate remained high, sitting at 27.3% for the second year in a row.
Taylor's power from 2017 didn't return, as his ISO this year (.112) was just over half of that four seasons ago (.216). That season appears to be a very clear outlier. At this point in his career, it's time to accept Taylor for what he is: a struggling hitter whose value won't come from anything he does in the batter's box. The Baseball Savant data backs that claim up, too. Take a look at these percentile rankings for Taylor this season:
- Whiff rate: 13th
- Strikeout rate: 15th
- Walk rate: 15th
- xwOBA: 19th
- xSLG: 27th
- Chase rate: 27th
- Barrel rate: 32nd
That's an overwhelming amount of areas in which Taylor ranked in the lower third of baseball. Sure, he can run into an occasional home run and there's always going to be a sliver of hope that his power and/or success from that beloved career-best season will return. With that said, it's extremely unlikely. Taylor makes his living on defense, and he was nothing short of fantastic in that regard for the Royals in his first year with the team.
In the field
There's no denying that Taylor was a Gold Glove-caliber defender this season for the Royals. He was brilliant judging by the eye test, making several highlight-reel catches and ranking in the top 10 among all major league outfielders in outfield assists. His arm was a calling card for him, and he also ranked in the 82nd percentile in Outfielder Jump. The advanced stats agree that Taylor was a world-class center fielder this season.
Taylor's 13.3 UZR in 2021 was the best of his career, beating out his 2017 figure by a full three points. It also led all outfielders. He also tied for first in DRS. By FanGraphs' account, Taylor was the best in the business overall. Baseball Savant has him second to only Manuel Margot of the Rays in both Runs Prevented and Outs Above Average. It isn't hyperbole to say that Taylor was about as elite as elite can get in the outfield. It remains to be seen if he can keep that level of performance up (this writer is a bit skeptical) but alas, this defensive display was one that many will remember for years to come.
A lack of center field depth within the Royals organization may render the team with little choice but to play Taylor on a daily basis next season. Edward Olivares can't handle that spot, Kyle Isbel may not get the chance to and no one else currently on the roster should be playing there. FanGraphs' value metric says Taylor was worth $15M in 2021, which would make his $4.5M average annual value over the next two years look silly. The money isn't an issue here — if the Royals find an offensive upgrade over Taylor via free agency or a trade, his contract won't prohibit them from moving him to more of a fourth outfielder role.
This season, Taylor was right around an average player. His bat was well below average, but his excellent defense managed to even things out. Can the Royals field a winning team with him starting every game? Yes, but Taylor has to quite possibly be the worst hitter or second-worst hitter in that lineup. If he's anything higher on the ladder, it would say a ton about how poor the other bats are.
Right now, and almost surely moving forward, Taylor is what he is. The Royals have always placed a huge emphasis on defense up the middle, and he's as good as anyone in that aspect of the game. If he's the everyday center fielder on the team in 2022, Kansas City needs to sleep in the bed it's made and surround him with productive hitters. If the team fails to do that, it won't be Taylor's fault. He has clear strengths and weaknesses as a player and is on an affordable deal. The rest is up to the Royals.