Of the 21 home runs Michael A. Taylor hit in 2017, between the regular season and the NLDS, none was bigger than his eighth-inning grand slam in the win-or-go-home Game 4 of the Division Series with the Chicago Cubs (though Taylor’s inside-the-park grand slam vs the Phillies in September was pretty impressive).
Washington’s 1-0 lead over Chicago was expanded to 5-0 by the Game 4 blast, which went out in spite of a strong wind coming in from right field, and shocked everyone there in Wrigley Field, including the Nationals and Cubs’ skippers.
“Michael A. came through with a big -- I didn't think any right-handed hitter could hit that ball out of the ballpark like he did tonight,” Baker said, after watching a number of fly balls knocked down by the wind coming in from the outfield in the Windy City.
“Give Taylor credit because you have to scald that ball to get it out,” Joe Maddon said, after dropping Game 4, which forced a Game 5 in the nation’s capital.
“That ball had to be absolutely crushed,” Maddon added. “That's into a gale, high, opposite field.”
Baker, pointing to a long fly ball to left off Addison Russell’s bat earlier in the game, said he didn’t think Taylor’s ball, and any fly had any chance of leaving the yard that night.
“I really didn't know because when that ball went off of -- well, fortunately for us, the elements are on our side because Russell's ball would have been way up in the stands and maybe even on the Avenue. That ball was blowing back in because that ball was hit a ton. That was the best ball hit tonight.
“So you know, the elements [were] on our side tonight. You know, I've played many games here, managed many games here, and everybody talks about, you know, how the ball flies here. But I think the time that I was here, I think the stadium takes away more homers than it gives. And tonight, it gave us one.”
Taylor’s at bat started against Carl Edwards, Jr., but when the reliever fell behind 1-0, after having walked the previous two batters, and Maddon went to Wade Davis to try go get the Cubs out of the jam. Taylor fouled off the first pitch from Davis, then sent the 1-1 pitch to right field and managed to hit it out.
“Leading up to it, I felt pretty good on the ball I fouled off,” Taylor said.
“The at-bat before, I kind of got caught thinking with the pitcher, guessing a little bit. So I tried to stick with my approach right there and just get another pitch out over.
“And then afterwards, I was kind of numb, just running around the bases. Honestly, I didn't think it was going to get out the way the wind was blowing in.”
Taylor was asked if there was a particular pitch or location that he was looking for when he hit it out.
“It wasn't so much a pitch or location,” he said. “For me, it's just getting a pitch in the strike zone. A lot of times I can be a little too aggressive.
“So just trying to slow myself down. Obviously watching video, getting an idea of all the pitches he has and seeing what they are doing, once I got in there, try to find the baseball and get a pitch in the zone.”
Finding his pitch, in the zone, and controlling his aggressiveness at the plate have been big steps for Taylor, who’s still striking out in close to a third of his at bats, and finished the 2017 campaign with 137 Ks in in 432 PAs, though he did take a big step this season, posting a .271/.320/.486 line with career highs in doubles (23) and home runs (19) in 118 games, over which he was worth a career-best 3.1 fWAR (up from .229/.282/.358, 15 doubles, 14 home runs, and 1.0 fWAR in 138 games and 511 PAs in 2015, and .231/.278/.376, 11 doubles, seven home runs, and 0.4 fWAR in 76 games and 237 PAs in 2016).
“We’ve always said that once he can control the strike zone a little bit better at the plate he can become the player that we want him to be,” Nats’ GM Mike Rizzo told 106.7 the FAN’s Sports Junkies back in June.
“He’s always been — consistently throughout his career — he’s been a great defender, got a great arm, he can steal you a base, can really, really run, [and] he’s got big power.
“And the separator for him is that pitch recognition.”
Taylor still chased pitches out of the zone (his O-Swing% - swings at pitches outside of the zone/pitches outside the zone, was actually up, to 35.5% from 30.8 in 2016, and a career 34.1), but he made more contact on pitches in the zone (78.3% Z-Contact%, up from 74.4% in 2016 and 77.6% in his career).
His teammates, including Stephen Strasburg, who earned the win with seven scoreless in Game 4, took note of the improvements from the outfielder too.
“Mikey is such a great person,” Strasburg said, after the big slam by Taylor.
“He's a great teammate and he does all the little things. He works really hard. And you know, we got drafted the same year, but he got drafted as a shortstop. So I met him pretty early on in our [careers].
“To see him coming out a center fielder and develop and make it to the big leagues, and deal with the ups and downs, like you said, and get to this position and hit a grand slam like that, that's pretty cool.”
Did Taylor do enough to lock up center field in 2018? Barring any additions or a big push for Victor Robles, will it be Adam Eaton in left field, Taylor as the Nats’ center fielder, and Bryce Harper in right next season?