Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Jameson Taillon acquitted himself to Major League Baseball in a big way in 2016. What will he do for an encore?

By nearly every measure, Pittsburgh Pirates starter Jameson Taillon had an incredible first go-round in Major League Baseball. Finally healthy again, Taillon checked off all of the boxes before making a splash with the major league club.

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Indeed, over the course of 18 starts, Taillon provided everything that the Pittsburgh Pirates could have asked for. He gave a lilting rotation life while silencing some still-lingering doubters as to his full recovery from Tommy John surgery and other maladies.

Now, on the verge of his first full season with the club, what will he do for an encore?

Taillon Ready For Round Two?


(click to enlarge)

You often hear that major league pitchers are prone to struggling in their second seasons. The reverse happens to hitters too – the game of baseball is unique in that because the action is centered around a one-on-one matchup, there is less room to hide bad tendencies or habits.

Taillon will undoubtedly run into a punch-back from Major League Baseball. Due in large part to his workman-like pace, Taillon took a lot of hitters by surprise last season. That will not happen in 2017, as there has been enough tape on Taillon for hitters to key in on some of his tendencies. It will now be up to Taillon, pitching coach Ray Searage and the Pirates catchers to devise a new paradigm.

Rob Biertempfel of Trib Live reported on just that topic, with Searage illuminating how Taillon can mix it up in his second season:

“We’ve got to adjust pitch sequences,” Searage said. “The consistency of the curveball needs to be tightened. Fastball command is good. He’s got good sink. He’s got to pitch at the top of the zone when he’s ahead in the count.”

Ray Searage as told to Rob Biertempfel

The Upper-Third – A Nice Place To Visit; Why Not Stay Awhile?

For 2016, Taillon threw 29 pitches in the upper-third of the strike zone while ahead in the count. It would be hard to argue with the results, as 13 of those 29 pitches landed for strikes (fouls, whiffs and called strikes) while just two were balls. Nine were put into play, and only five ended up falling for hits.

Any major-league capable pitcher can work the bottom third of the zone. Good ones can work the fringes of the middle. But it takes a very good pitcher to be able to effectively use the upper third of the zone. For Taillon, this section of the strike zone represents an interesting opportunity to show hitters a new wrinkle.

In fact, don’t be surprised if you see Taillon use that upper third a lot more in 2017 at any point in the at-bat. Of 136 pitches Taillon threw there at any count – 8.77 percent of his 1550 total pitches – only 14 fell for hits. 32 were put into play, and 25 (18.4 percent) were called strikes.

Taillon generated some good swing and miss rates on the edges of the upper third to both right and left-handed bats, albeit in a small sample size.

JT whiffs per swing

If Taillon can continue to get good movement on two-seamer, he can use the upper third to effectively induce weak contact, as seen here:

video courtesy of Statcast

Pitch F/X labels that pitch as a 94.81 mph two-seam fastball. Notice how well it runs back into the zone and in on the hands of the left handed hitting Asdrubal Cabrera. For Taillon to utilize this area of the strike zone with regular success, he will need to also get his four seamer into the action.

You Are Now Entering the Spin Zone

Since Statcast data starting being compiled, it has generally been accepted that a higher spin rate on a four seam fastball tends to result in swinging strikes and flies. Low spin rates result in weaker contact. The middle of the road in terms of spin rate is, of course, dangerous.

A quick look at Taillon’s spin rate during his 2016 Pittsburgh Pirates starts shows that his four seamers thrown up in the zone occupy the lower-end of the spin spectrum, with a 1757.73 rpm spin rate on four-seamers thrown in the upper-third, contrasted against a 2282 spin rate on his straight heat in all areas of the strike zone.

In this sense, Taillon is already well ahead of the game in learning how to pitch up in the zone.

Putting It All Together

So, to this point we have established that, provided his moving pitches still move and his four-seamer provides the right spin rate, Taillon can tap into uncharted territory to get a leg up on hitters who may be overlooking the possibility of Taillon going higher in the zone.

But for the Pittsburgh Pirates to maximize Taillon’s second season – in fact, his first full season – they may want to tinker with his pitch mix, specifically after the first pitch of the at-bat.

If we contrast his usage overall, we can see some tendencies start to form.

Pitch Usage Data Between 0-1 and 1-0

0-120528 (13.7%)92 (44.9%)85 (41.5%)58 (28.3%)68 (33.2%)53 (25.9%)26 (12.7%)
1-016040 (25%)60 (37.5%60 (37.6%)29 (18.1%)77 (48.1%)22 (13.8%)31 (19.4%)
vs. LHBPitchesHits/InPlayBallStrikesFFFTCUCH
0-19415 (12.8%)42 (44.7%40 (42.5%)38 (40.4%)16 (17.0%)24 (25.5%)16 (17.0%)
1-09523 (24.2%)36 (37.9%)36 (37.9%)21 (22.1%)40 (42.1%)9 (9.5%25 (26.3%)
vs. RHBPitchesHits/InPlayBallStrikesFFFTCUCH
0-111116 (14.4%)50 (45.0%)45 (40.5%)20 (18%)52 (46.8%)29 (26.1%)10 (9%)
1-06517 (26.2%)24 (36.9%)34 (36.9%)8 (12.3%)37 (56.9%)13 (20%)6 (9.2%)

This table shows us how things shake out for Taillon after the first pitch of an at-bat, provided the first pitch was not put in play. It is often said that the most important pitch a pitcher throws is not the first one, but the 1-1 pitch. So from here, we can see how Taillon approaches getting to the most important part of an at-bat.

Taillon has a tendency to throw more balls after 0-1 to both left-handed and right handed hitters. IF we look at the pitch usage in those instances, we can see that there is an clear favorite among each group. For left-handed hitters, Taillon will attempt to sneak some straight heat by them while trying to get right-handers to chase a bit with a moving fastball.

More than anything, this chart shows how a few small tweaks can help Taillon and the Pittsburgh Pirates guard against the fabled “punch back” that is coming his way. Specifically, much like Serage told Biertempfel, the changeup can come out to play more often, with a low percentage rate in overall usage after 0-1.

It could be possible that these rates did not have a chance to level out as Tailon had but 18 starts in 2016. It will be up to the second year pitcher and the Pirates to show that what opposing hitters have seen thus far from 2016 is not the status quo going forward.

Simply put, as good as Jameson Taillon was in his first 18 starts, a few small changes here and there – and dipping his offerings into some new territory – can easily unlock another level for the 25 year-old.

And that should have Pittsburgh Pirates fans very excited.

Jason Rollison

Jason Rollison has been analyzing baseball and the Pirates in one way or another for 4+ years. Jason's previous stops include rumbunter.com, Pittsburgh Sporting News, Call To The Pen and several print publications. He also covers the State College Spikes for the Centre County Gazette (State College, PA) When it comes to analyzing baseball, he likes to take a middle-of-the-road approach, with one foot on the analytics side of the fence and the other on the old-school side. Having said that, he is a sucker for pitchf/x. Jason has appeared as a phone-in and in-studio guests in numerous outlets, including Trib Live Radio and 93.7 The Fan (CBS Sports Radio)