One thing that hasn't fully emerged in the community discussion over Denard Span's injury is exactly how much the Nats will suffer from (hopefully) missing about fifty or so at-bats.
OK, it sort of has. But pretending it hasn't, there are good reasons to avoid going Chicken Little, I think. One of these is the Nats' projected win totals being at the high end of league estimates. At that end of the curve, a half win to a win or so (again, hopefully) should not make much difference.
But who says the team is destined to concede some ground? One potential replacement, Michael Taylor, has a nice pedigree and several good minor league campaigns in the bank. D.C. fans got about a forty at-bat taste of Taylor last season. Taylor showed some skills--his defense is fairly close to unimpeachable--but strikeouts weighed his triple slash down to a .205/.279/.359 line. Not great, for sure.
Opposing hurlers had a pretty clear strategy against the twenty-three year old: throw the ball down, down, and inside too:
Taylor isn't exactly someone who rocks Ichiro-like contact levels. He swung and missed about 6% more often than his major league peers last year--definitely a small sample size, but coupled with strikeout rates in the minors around the mid-to upper twenties, it's nonetheless a sign. Probably not full-on RED FLAG, or even warning sign!, but it's something the team is certainly aware of.
So too are MLB pitchers; not surprisingly, they focused most of their pitches on locations out of the strike zone, and Taylor's willingness to take a hack likely encouraged going back to the well. Check out how Taylor's whiffs per swing broke down:
Yet Taylor knows what's up. He talked with The Washington Post's Chelsea Janes about his aggressiveness at the plate, and swinging at first pitches:
"I think that’s something I do naturally, sometimes a little too aggressive," said Taylor of swinging early. "I think that’s part of my game."
Matt Williams was complimentary about Taylor's ability to jump on fastballs, as shown by his home run against the Yankees, but also noted that the young right-handed hitter also took a wayward hack at a ball in the dirt that same day.
His observation dovetails well with the firetruck red low whiff zone in the chart directly above, where pitchers often targeted their breaking balls. It's a rite of passage for many young major leaguers: prove you can handle fastballs, earn breaking balls, prove you can survive.
Again keeping in mind the small sample, check out how pitchers started to attack Taylor as he accumulated big league plate appearances in 2014:
With the exception of Bartolo Colon and other Mets' pitchers on September 23, 2014, Taylor saw fewer hard pitches in September than he did in August. For Taylor, it's about learning to adjust and being mechanically sound. The idea is that developing consistency in these respects will give him a better chance to defend against tough pitches.
"First, the biggest adjustment he made was the evolution of his approach," Harris said. "His base was significantly better last year. His posture was better and with that the confidence grew.
"It continues to be a process with him, harnessing his approach and from an ability standpoint the sky is the limit with Michael. He showed glimpses last year when he came to the big leagues of what he's capable of doing and we feel like he will have an opportunity to contribute at some point this year."
Here's what Harris is talking about. Courtesy of YouTube user Ryan Kelley, we get a pretty good angle of the "gathering" portion (that is, the segment right before the trigger and actual swing) of Taylor's swing during a 2012 minor league game with Hagerstown. Note how far forward his front foot is positioned relative to his back:
There's nothing wrong with being spread out, but Taylor's positioning means he's putting a disproportionate amount of weight on his back foot, then having to transfer more "arms-only" force through contact. Now here's early last year at Harrisburg, at the same segment of his swing, courtesy of YouTube user Walt Hilsenbeck:
Yes, the angle is different, but it's clear Taylor's base is more compact, and his back leg is a little more upright. He showed a similar posture while in the big leagues. Here's the slow mo from his first big-league home run against the Mets:
Even seeing the entirety of his swing, Taylor is visibly more upright and compact through gathering, with a rear hip in great loaded position, and more balanced. This is what Harris means when he talks about base and posture--and Harris has seen his share of success stories. Above, Taylor reminds me a little of this guy. He may never strike out less than 20%, but with speed, pop, and great defense, that will play.
Succeeding in the majors is, among other things, a test of adjustments. We see here how the league has adjusted to Taylor, but we've seen how Taylor can play that game too. At the end of the day, his first year with the refined approach was, all things considered, quite good. Here's hoping he keeps it rolling in the majors--for however long the Nats need him.
Thanks to Brooks Baseball for statistics, Youtube users identified above for images, and Project Prospect for swing analysis.