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Jameson Taillon & The Burden of Expectations

Jameson Taillon has been good, not great, for the Pirates in his career. And that’s OK.
Photo by Matt Freed/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Astute readers of TPOP may recognize the framework of this article’s title from one that I wrote last year regarding Gerrit Cole and his burden of expectations. While that article was more related to Cole being the 1st overall pick and disappointing some portion of the fanbase, I feel that it can be properly recycled today for Jameson Taillon.

Taillon is having a very good season for the Pirates. Very good. Not great. Not awesomely amazing. Very good. His 3.58 ERA/3.49 FIP mix indicates that there’s no luck or misfortune; he’s earned his stats this year to date. Taillon’s 2.6 WAR leads the pitching staff. He will hopefully either meet or exceed the 3.0 WAR threshold, which will make him only the 2nd Neal Huntington draftee to do so, next to the aforementioned Gerrit Cole.

But a 3 WAR campaign for a pitcher means you’re roughly a #3 pitcher, using my handy Rule Of Six when you take a player’s WAR and subtract it from 6 to get their slot number. Try it, it works.

This is Taillon’s second full year in the Majors and the first in which he’s been fully healthy. Taillon’s arduous journey to get to the Majors and the subsequent cancer scare last year don’t need to be re-hashed, but rest assured I gave him a very wide berth on his 2017 season after he somehow came back midseason after his treatment.

In the 2018 season, he’s improved on some metrics and lessened in others, but to neither side of any significant degree. Of course it’s nice to see his ERA drop from 4.44 to 3.58, but to some degree that stat is out of his hands at times. His strikeout rate is down, his homer rate is up, but his walk rate is down. Mixed bag, but it will eventually land him in the same overall WAR range as last year’s 2.9 in 25 starts.

There’s a large portion of the Pirate fanbase that desperately wants Taillon to be an ‘ace’. There’s a smaller, but not tiny, portion of the fanbase that thinks he already is one. For me, one of the components of being labeled as an elusive ‘ace’ is the ability to pitch deep into games. Ideally, you want your #1 pitcher to pitch at least 7 innings with some degree of frequency. Take Max Scherzer as an example. Scherzer is a leading candidate for the NL Cy Young this year and is a bonafide, no doubt #1. In his 27 starts this year, Scherzer has pitched at least 7 innings 15 times (55.5% of his starts). In contrast, Taillon has pitched 7 innings or more in just 5 of his 25 starts (20%). Yes, I’m aware that Taillon has been given a quick hook at times by Hurdle this year, especially the July 7th game against the Phillies, but the overall point still stands — Taillon needs to go deeper into games.

Of course you would love to see a pitcher as economical with his pitchers as Joe Musgrove has been. Musgrove is averaging 13.9 pitches per inning. For contrast, Taillon is averaging 15.5. Over 6 innings, Musgrove has thrown roughly 10 fewer pitches than Taillon, which is why Musgrove has been consistently getting length in his outings. Musgrove has pitched 7 innings or more in 8 of his 14 starts (57.1%), which is inline with Max Scherzer. But Scherzer himself is averaging 15.8 pitches per inning, so this means he’s simply throwing more pitches than Taillon and regularly exceeding the 100 pitch limit.

Perhaps the Pirates are still keeping the kid gloves on Taillon as a result of his Tommy John surgery, but I hope that’s not the case as that was in 2014. Quite simply, they need to stop babying him. This isn’t an ‘old man shaking his cane’ type of moment. It’s just saying it’s OK to break the magical 100 pitch count a little more than 7 out of 25 starts, as Taillon has been allowed to do so this year. Not 120 regularly, just nudge it up to a consistent 100-110.

There’s also a burden placed on Taillon that he has absolutely no control over and that’s who was drafted after him. The 2010 draft had a no-brainer pick at #1 in Bryce Harper, so the Pirates knew at #2 they had their pick between either the potential ace high school pitcher in Taillon or the star high school SS in Manny Machado.

Machado has been amazing throughout his career with the Orioles (and now the Dodgers after his recent trade) and has four 5+ WAR seasons on his resume. He and Harper will both be hitting free agency after the season due to their sprints through the minors resulting in them both debuting in 2012 and having their first full seasons in 2013. Taillon’s path was delayed due to injuries and the Pirates’ methodical nature of moving prospects through the minors, so he didn’t debut until 2016 and his first full season was last year.

Clearly Machado would have been the better pick, as he blended tremendous 30+ HR seasons with excellent defense at short (pre-injury to his knee) and third base (post-injury to his knee). But the Pirates in 2010 were in the mindset of growing ace-level arms by finding them in the draft. Aside from Gerrit Cole in 2011, that strategy has yet to pan out for them.

Jameson Taillon is a high-end #3, low-end #2 level pitcher. There’s a tremendous amount of value in that. Prior to the season, I speculated that the Pirates wouldn’t approach Taillon about an extension due to his significant injury history. I still believe that and can see them going year-to-year with him for the next four seasons. They’ll have him under team control for his age 27-30 seasons and as I recently showed, Huntington hasn’t had success in locking up non-premium talent in the past.

I’m advocating that Pirate fans take a Zen-like approach with Jameson Taillon. Just appreciate what he is right now. Don’t try and wish for him to be something that he’s not. Don’t lament that the Pirates took him over Manny Machado. He’s a solid pitcher that has overcome obstacles that no one would ever want to befell us. That said, it’s OK to want the Pirates to push him a little deeper into games!

*All stats prior to games on Friday, August 24, 2018

Nerd engineer by day, nerd writer at night. Kevin is the co-founder of The Point of Pittsburgh. He is the author of Creating Christ, a sci-fi novel available on Amazon.

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