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Jameson Taillon Is Doing Better with Fewer Fastballs

    1. Jameson Taillon may be on the brink of breaking out because he’s throwing fewer fastballs.
    (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)

The Pirates have a new Jameson Taillon. I don’t mean they have another pitcher that profiles like him or that the Bucs replaced him like how the Beatles replaced Paul McCartney. I mean the current Jameson Taillon is different from the one that made the trip from Bradenton. This new Taillon is flying in the face of everything the Pirates have tried to make their pitchers do the last few years. He isn’t fastball heavy anymore.

It seems the switch occurred shortly after the first Taillon ?s 10th start of the year. To that point, he had thrown either a four-seamer or sinker at least 63.5% of the time in every outing. But this new Taillon has a slider, and he throws it often. So often, in fact, that it ?s cut into his fastball usage. In the nine starts since May 27, Taillon has barely cracked 55% fastball usage in just three starts, never once reaching 60%.

Taillon’s pitch selection by start. Courtesy of Brooks Baseball.

The Taillon from the first 10 starts threw his fastball 68% of the time, which was in the top 15% league wide at the time among starters. The Taillon from the last nine appearances has thrown in 52.8% of the time. That is actually a below average fastball rate. Imagine, a Pirate starter throwing his fastball less than the league average pitcher. What a time to be alive.

Throwing fewer heaters has worked out so far in terms of results. Here is Taillon through his first 10 starts:

51.1 IP, 4.56 ERA, 4.14 FIP, 50 H, 48 SO, 16 BB, 7 HR, .308 wOBA, .720 OPS

And here he is in his last nine:

48.2 IP, 3.51 ERA, 3.09 FIP, 45 H, 45 SO, 12 BB, 4 HR, .288 wOBA, .662 OPS

Taillon has seen a modest improvement in his strikeout and walk rates while seeing a slight dip in his WHIP. The real difference has been keeping the ball in the park more (thus lowering opponents ? wOBA and OPS). All told, both his ERA and FIP have dropped over a run since he altered his pitch selection.

One of the most apparent differences for him has been the effectiveness of his changeup. Like most right-handed pitchers, Taillon throws this pitch primarily to lefty batters. 99 of his 135 changeups have been to southpaws, but it has not helped much. In the first 10 games of his season, lefty batters had a .520 wOBA and .846 slugging percentage against the pitch. But in the last nine games, batters have a .176 wOBA and are slugging just .200 against it.

Volume may be the reason why. A changeup is, at its core, a crappy, slow fastball. Its effectiveness lies solely on catching the batter off guard, either by its break or velocity. How many times can a pitcher throw a ?gotcha ? pitch when it comes in at the same trajectory as a fastball, especially when the same pitcher is throwing heat almost 70% of the time?

I think this is an overarching problem for the Pirates’ starting staff. All of their starters have a changeup in their arsenal, but only Nick Kingham ?s change has a weighted value above 0. Pirates starters have combined for the worst weighted changeup value in the NL. I believe the team ?s fastball goofy approach is the main contributing factor.

Sorry for the detour. Back to Jameson. Taillon only had a three pitch mix through mid-May, so he relied on his changeup a lot, throwing it, on average, about 7.5 times a game. Now with a fourth pitch in the mix, he is offering it only 4.5 times an outing. Batters now get only one shot at that pitch a game rather than two or three.

That new slider has also been a difference maker. For its origins, I ?d recommend this piece penned by Rob Biertempfel last month. It ?s literally Clayton Kershaw theory, and it ?s working.

Taillon now not only has a pitch that moves horizontally to go with his vertical breaking curveball, which changes a batter’s eye level, but it ?s a pitch he can throw in just about every situation. Baseball Savant says Taillon has thrown 187 sliders since May 27 (an average of roughly 21 per start). 64 of those sliders came when he was behind in the count, 64 came in an even count and 59 were thrown when he was ahead. It ?s been effective in all situations, with the batted ball average hovering around the Mendoza line in all three scenarios with healthy whiff rates (23.4% when behind, 15.6% when even and 15.3% when ahead). It ?s been a good kill pitch, too. Of Taillon ?s 45 strikeouts over the last nine starts, 16 were on fastballs, 14 on curveballs and 15 on sliders.

There may be some cause for concern about his fastball now that he ?s throwing it less, though. Before the 27th, batters have a .341 wOBA against Taillon ?s fastballs. That ?s a little on the high side, but manageable. Since he started relying on his heat less, batters now a .476 wOBA against it.

This may just be a red herring, though. Taillon has allowed 12 ground ball hits on fastballs over his last nine starts. While the league only hits .263 on batted ground ball fastballs, Taillon has been hit at a .343 clip. If you look at the (admittedly flawed, but not without some merit) metric xwOBA (expected wOBA), batters are hitting the pitch roughly as hard and with as much launch as they did the first half of his season- .338 the first ten starts, .346 the last nine. Chalk the sudden spike up to either rotten luck or the Pirates ? rotten defense.

So Taillon is actively trying to avoid the pitfalls of other Pirates pitchers based on pitch selection, has a far more effective changeup, has a new pitch that he can throw at any given count and is being held back from taking that next step mainly because of rotten luck and bad defense. That sounds like the makings of his coming out of his shell party. Taillon has been good overall this season, but with his astronomical expectations, it ?s fair to be a little let down by his fairly pedestrian results so far. That may change soon.

Alex is a Pirates and Duquesne basketball contributor to The Point of Pittsburgh. He graduated from Point Park University with a degree in Journalism and Mass Comm. and a minor in English in 2014. Everything can be explained with numbers. If you want to keep up to date on both teams or have a story idea, you can follow or reach him @AlexJStumpf.

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