Prior to the 2015 season, the Washington Nationals had a pretty good idea of what they would be getting out of Michael Taylor. He provides a terrific glove in center field. He runs extremely well and has terrific power.... when he hits the ball. Unfortunately, making contact with the ball has been an issue throughout Taylor's professional career. Matt Williams talked a bit about it after Tuesday's doubleheader:
It's part of his maturation process. We have to remember where he was last year. He got a taste of it last year and he's getting some more experience up here now. For Mike it's about swinging at a good pitch and putting a good swing on that good pitch and it's part of the process as young players go through it, so he's getting good experience at this point. He whacked a double tonight and got in scoring position and was out there for a base hit to tie the game. But he also swung at some balls out of the zone, so it's part of the process.
Taylor went 2 for 8 in the doubleheader. Those two hits were the only times he ended up making contact. He struck out six times, whacked the double that Williams referred to, and hit a bloop to shallow center field that Ezequiel Carrera got an absolutely terrible read on and allowed to drop in for a single. Taylor's six strikeouts on the day increased his season total to 48 in just 121 plate appearances. That's 39.7%! I think that we all knew that Taylor was going to have a high strikeout rate, but a 39.7% strikeout rate is worse than even the most pessimistic fan expected from him.
Minor League strikeout problems
In 2011, Taylor made the jump from short season (rookie) ball to full season ball. Since progressing past rookie ball, Taylor has a 26.9% strikeout rate in 1925 minor league plate appearances. It's been an issue at every level for him. In all but one season since 2011, Taylor's strikeout rate has been 24.6% or higher. In that one season where it was below 24.6%, he was repeating the A+ level at Potomac.
- Taylor struck out in 24.6% of his plate appearances in his first year at full season ball in 2011 at Class A Hagerstown
- He was promoted to Class A+ Potomac in 2012 and really struggled. Taylor hit just .242/.318/.362 for a 91 wRC+ in the Carolina League and struck out in 26.2% of his plate appearances.
- Taylor remained at Potomac in 2013 and showed improvement as he repeated the level. He turned in his lowest strikeout rate (22.5%) in any single season. He also started hitting the ball with more authority (.163 ISO vs. .120 in his first shot at A+ ball) and started running a lot more frequently (51 SB in 58 attempts... compared with 19 SB in 28 attempts the previous year)
- 2014 is where it all came together... or most of it did, at least. Taylor hit .313/.396/.539 at AA Harrisburg with 22 HR and 34 SB. Of course, he still struck out in 29.5% of his plate appearances at the level. The batting average was driven by a .421 BABIP, which is absolutely and undeniably unsustainable as his career progresses.
- Taylor has spent two brief stints at AAA. He's hit quite well overall (.286/.378/.457), but the strikeouts have been a problem there as well. He's fanned 24 times in 84 plate appearances, which is 28.6% of the time.
Strikeouts have always been a problem for Taylor. The likelihood is that they're always going to be a problem for Taylor. The real question is whether he can make enough of an adjustment at the upper levels to make strikeouts slightly less of a problem for him than they've been throughout his professional career. It's going to take time and it's probably going to require watching Taylor struggle for a bit as he adjusts.
Major League strikeout problems
Taylor's already high strikeout rate has spiked quite a bit at the big league level. In a brief stint with the Nationals last season, Taylor struck out in 39.5% of his plate appearances. With some extended opportunities for Taylor to get playing time so far in 2015, it's actually even risen a bit more. After his six strikeout performance on Tuesday, Taylor has now struck out in 39.7% of his plate appearances this season. Obviously, pitchers have developed an idea of how they should be attacking the holes in Taylor's swing. Now it's time for Taylor to show that he can adjust to them.
What are the holes in Taylor's swing?
Let's start with a look at a heat map.
There certainly doesn't appear to be any rocket science involved here. Taylor has had some issues up on the inside corner. Other than that, pitchers that attack him down in the zone (and more specifically, down and away) are really dominating him. Taylor is getting to most pitches that are up as long as they're not in on his hands. We see an awful lot of blue down at the bottom right of the heat map, though.
Of course, what pitches tend to get thrown the most towards that lower outside corner? You'll see some fastballs down in that area from time to time, but we're usually seeing a lot of breaking balls in that area. Let's have a look at how Taylor has performed against some different pitch types using Fangraphs "Pitch Values per 100 pitches."
So Taylor is hitting fastballs. He's been 2.23 Runs Above Average per 100 pitches against fastballs. He's been -2.7 against curveballs and -2.75 against sliders. He's been particularly weak against the changeup. His performance against split-fingered fastballs has been so poor that it's hard to imagine that he's faced more than one or two of them.
Simply from watching yesterday's game, I wondered why in the world any pitcher would ever throw Taylor a fastball. He looked absolutely lost against R.A. Dickey's knuckleball. He struck out swinging on a Marco Estrada changeup where he was so far out in front that he could have swung twice. His ability to recognize what the pitcher is throwing seems to need a lot of work.
Let's also take a look at his whiff rate on pitch types via Brooks Baseball. We'll see that he's actually pretty strong at making contact against "hard" stuff, whiffing on less than 20% of his swings against fastballs in every month he's played in the majors. His performance against breaking balls and off-speed pitches has generally been 25% or higher.
So we're seeing what the holes are in Taylor's swing. He struggles against pitches down/down and away and he struggles with his pitch recognition against breaking balls and off-speed stuff. This isn't something that should be that unexpected when we're talking about a player who spent just under a year in the high minors. Players see more and better breaking balls at the high minors than they do in A ball, so Taylor doesn't have a lot of experience facing quality off-speed stuff.
Hopefully Rick Schu can help Taylor work on his pitch recognition and help him work on hitting breaking balls. We've definitely seen that he can turn around a fastball in a hurry, but he isn't going to be able to get by just hitting fastballs. As he continues to see more and more time at the big league level, Taylor is going to see an awful lot of breaking balls. If I'm watching a game and asking myself why a pitcher would ever throw him a fastball, you can bet that big league batteries watching tape of him are going to start asking that same question.
Practice makes perfect.... hopefully.