Wednesday, December 2, 2015

2015 Season Review: Michael A Taylor

Coming into 2015, Michael A Taylor wasn’t expected to play a major role for the Nationals. He was expected to spend time in AAA refining his approach at the plate or hold down the 4th outfielder spot on the big league squad. Instead, injuries to Jayson Werth, Reed Johnson, and Denard Span forced Taylor into the starting line up. Over the course of the 138 games Taylor played in, he showed flashes of greatness interspersed with telling signs of his weaknesses.

Those flashes of greatness include some prodigious power. He hit 14 home runs on the year, including one of the longest home runs in the 2015 major league season. While I don’t buy into “clutch” as a talent, Taylor’s power certainly came at advantageous times as it felt like every single one of those 14 home runs pulled the Nationals tied or gave the team the lead in important situations. Despite Bryce Harper’s best efforts, the Nationals lost a lot of their power in Ian Desmond’s down year and injuries to Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth, two players expected to provide the pop in the middle of the lineup in 2015. Taylor stepped in and forced opposing teams to account for his power in the lineup.

On the base paths, Taylor also offered impressive speed that the Nationals were sorely lacking, especially with Bryce Harper mostly limited to moving station to station to keep him upright and in the lineup. Taylor led the team with 16 stolen bases and was caught only 3 times. With only two other Nationals swiping more than ten stolen bases (Ian Desmond with 13 and Denard Span with 11), Taylor was one of the few players who would actually offer a distraction to opposing pitchers on the base paths.

In the field, Taylor’s speed and throwing arm were on full display. After a couple of seasons of minor league reports praising Taylor’s defense in center field, he mostly lived up to the hype in the majors. He was one of the few major league players to record a throw from the outfield in excess of 100 MPH (according to the new Statcast system). Advanced stats rated Taylor average or above average during 2015. These stats take a couple years to really settle in at a score, so take the DRS and UZR ratings with a grain of salt. The early hiccups the Nationals saw with Taylor’s defense, thinking especially of the debacles in the outfield during the Nationals blow out to the Red Sox in Fenway, probably skewed the advanced defensive measurements. Judging from the tape, Taylor’s speed is an obvious asset in center field and, as he grew accustomed to his role on the team, his instincts and first steps looked excellent.

Unfortunately, the positives end there. With the bat, Taylor posted one of the worst offensive seasons among regular big league players. His wRC+ (weighted runs created – total offensive output weighted by opponent, field, etc) of 69 meant he was over 30% worse than league average with the bat. That’s the same territory as the notoriously light hitting Jordy Mercer of the Pirates whose own offensive ineptitude got him benched for the Korean import Jung-ho Kang. For someone with the ability to hit the ball nearly 500 feet, Taylor’s ISO of .129 is closer to an ISO of a light hitting middle infielder than a slugger.

Taylor’s struggles at the plate all come back to swings and misses. He struck out in over 30% of his at bats. That rate was the 8th highest strike out rate among MLB hitters with at least 250 at bats. That kind of strike out rate doesn’t render Taylor unplayable. In fact, 6 of the 7 hitters with higher strike out rates than Taylor were not push overs at the plate. That group includes guys like Chris Davis who hit for a lot of power. In order to hang at the MLB level with that much swing and miss, a player has to hit for a lot of power. To that point, the lowest ISO among those 6 was .174. The 7th was tortured Mariners catcher Mike Zunino, not a player anyone wants to be compared to offensively. Taylor swung a lot, a 53% swing rate that’s higher than league average, but made contact only 69% of the time. That means Taylor had a swinging strike rate of 16%, 11th worst in the majors.

Taylor's strike outs are the result of his inability to handle off speed and breaking pitches. Because Taylor hit .242 against fastballs, he saw that pitch only 51% of the time. Instead, pitchers went after Taylor with sliders as he hit only .172 against the pitch with an ISO of .094. Taylor’s results against change ups were a little better, only a .200 batting average but a .225 ISO. Taylor had trouble laying off of those types of pitches, and clearly couldn't do much with the offerings when he was able to make contact.

Strike outs are nothing new for Taylor, though. He regularly posted strike out rates over 20% in the minors yet was able to make more contact and post acceptable batting averages. That power ability with a higher contact rate and Taylor’s usual league average walk rates explain why he was such a highly touted prospect. Young players have a tendency to struggle against major league pitchers’ quality off speed pitches. Pitcher's ability to control off speed is one of the biggest differentiators between the minors and the majors. As we touched on, adjusting to off speed pitches was a big part of Bryce Harper’s breakout last year. Hoping for improvement in this regard wouldn’t be asking the world of Taylor. He won’t ever post .300 batting averages regularly, but if Taylor can improve against breaking pitches reign in the strikeouts, 20 home runs and a .260 batting average on a regular basis isn’t out of reach for him. That kind of offensive line combined with Taylor’s great speed and defense would be a huge source of value for the Nationals over the next several seasons. Let’s hope that Taylor can take that next step forward starting in 2016.

Previous 2015 Season Reviews:
Denard Span
Ian Desmond
Doug Fister
Jordan Zimmermann
Wilson Ramos
Ryan Zimmerman
Danny Espinosa
Yunel Escobar
Bryce Harper

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