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Michael A. Taylor’s shorter swing the key to success as Washington Nationals’ fourth outfielder

Michael A. Taylor enters Spring Training as the likely fourth outfielder for the Washington Nationals. But his new swing needs to pay off for him to have success in the role.

MLB: Washington Nationals at Toronto Blue Jays Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports

This time a year ago, Michael A. Taylor was preparing to be the Opening Day center fielder for the Washington Nationals. Although top prospect Victor Robles was looming, Taylor had fully earned the starting job heading into 2018.

Taylor was coming off of a season in which he slashed .271/.320/.486 with 19 home runs and 17 stolen bases, before impressing in the NLDS against the Chicago Cubs. Oh, and don’t forget about his trademark Gold Glove defense in center.

But the lofty stat line just papered over the cracks in his swing. His strikeout percentage was still north of 30 percent and it showed with an unsustainable .363 BABIP that season.

Correction came in 2018 in the form of a .227/.287/.357 slash line and a wRC+ of just 71. The defense and speed were still there, but he was clearly struggling at the plate, flirting with the Mendoza Line for a large portion of the season.

That forced manager Dave Martinez to use Bryce Harper in center over Taylor. Nobody needs reminding how ugly that was defensively.

In an attempt to remedy the flaws in his swing, Nationals hitting coach Kevin Long made a special effort to work with Taylor over the offseason to try and improve his mechanics at the plate.

“We came up with kind of the blueprint [for his swing] and we’re going to follow that,” Long said at Winterfest in December. “It was good, because last year at the end he wasn’t playing a whole lot, so we got to address quite a few of [the things] we wanted to work on this offseason.”

Taylor then went down to the Dominican Winter League to keep working on his new shorter swing in the hope of minimizing strikeouts. However, his stint there was cut short by hip flexor and oblique injuries.

“They talked to him. It was a little bit of an oblique strain,” Martinez said of the injury. “They talked to him and they wanted him to come home. He played a little bit more, but he didn’t play much and he finally came home.”

Those injuries showed, as his results in LIDOM weren’t pretty, posting a .143 average with nine strikeouts and a lone walk in seven games.

Thankfully, he appears to be past the injuries and it looks like he will be good to go for the Nats’ first Spring Training game against the Houston Astros.

“He’s good. As a matter of fact, I saw him today and he looks really good,” Martinez said on Thursday. “To give you a heads up, he’ll play center field on Saturday.”

It will be interesting to see the swing changes that Taylor worked on in action. The early signs are promising after his first few workouts in West Palm Beach.

“What I like is that he shortened his stride and his swing is a lot shorter,” Martinez said following BP.

“If we can keep him right there — the power is going to be there, he’s just a strong kid, for me it’s just getting him to put the ball in play. That’s the key for him, is just making contact, put the ball in play and use all his tools.”

If Taylor really has improved at putting the ball in play, then he has all the tools to be able to thrive off the bench.

The defense is there to be a stellar late-game defensive replacement in close games. The speed is there to steal a key base in the late innings. And the power is there if the offense needs a jolt with one swing of the bat.

But so far in his career, Taylor just hasn’t consistently put up tough at-bats, something a pinch hitter simply has to do.

In 2018, among NL players with at least 350 plate appearances, he had the fourth lowest contact percentage on pitches inside the zone (76.8 percent) and sixth highest swinging strike percentage (14.9 percent).

A shortened swing would give him a great chance to improve on that and allow him make a lot more contact. But it’s one thing to do it in BP, it’s a completely different thing to be able to do it against major league caliber pitching.

If the improvements do indeed translate through into game action, then he could even force his way into more playing time. He’ll be needed if Robles goes through an extended slump, or Adam Eaton needs a rest to manage his playing time and keep him healthy.

“I want him out in the field, you know why? Because we’re really good when he’s out there,” Martinez said. “He is one of the best center fielders in the game, he can steal bases, he runs the bases really well, but in order for him to compete and play out there every day, he’s got to put the ball in play, that’s the biggest thing for him.”

Michael A. Taylor divides opinion among Nationals fans. But one thing everyone can agree on is that his raw tools are some of the best in the organization. If he can finally correct the swing-and-miss in his game, he will be a valuable component in the Nats’ quest to return to the top of the NL East.