Michael A. Taylor had a postseason to remember. I’m sure that any baseball fan that has been intently watching the playoffs can recall the great moments he has had. In fact, there are likely a lot of non-baseball fans living in the Baltimore-Washington metro area who are aware of Taylor’s postseason exploits.
In his 18 postseason plate appearances, Taylor had three singles and two home runs. He even drew three walks (but struck out four times because he is still Michael A. Taylor). Of course, those two homers are where all the story lies.
It begins in Game 4 at the top of the eighth inning. The Nationals were up 1-0, hoping to hang on to force a Game 5 back in Washington. Carl Edwards Jr. came in to relieve Jon Lester with two outs in the inning and Daniel Murphy on first base. With Anthony Rendón due to come up, it was a good opportunity to to pull the lefty.
Once could make an argument for other right-handed relievers, but Edwards was a good choice in the situation. Rendón is a dangerous hitter, after all. Since 2016, Edwards has had a 3.25 RA9 and struck out 36.5 percent of batters faced. The downside is that he has terrible control, as evidenced by his 13.0 percent walk rate. Not surprisingly, the hitter with the 14 percent walk rate took a walk, but not before a wild pitch advanced Murphy to second. Another walk to Matt Wieters set the stage for Taylor: bases loaded, two outs, up by one run.
I am sure that I do not need to prove that this was a high leverage situation, but since this is Beyond the Box Score, the leverage index was 2.77 (meaning this PA was nearly three times as important as a the average PA). Joe Maddon was well aware of this, so he pulled Edwards in favor of his best reliever, Wade Davis, as he should have. Davis is coming off the worst year of his relieving career, but that is still a really good year: a 2.45 RA9 while striking out about one third of batters faced.
With Taylor’s career 32 percent strikeout rate, having Davis face him almost seemed like overkill, but you can’t take any chances in high-leverage situations during the postseason. Still, this seemed as close to an automatic out as one could imagine. So of course, Taylor got a mislocated fastball down the middle and crushed it over the fence for a grand slam. It was 5-0, and the Cubs’ win expectancy dropped below two percent. Game over.
The Cubs gave Kyle Hendricks the ball in the decisive Game 5, and he faced Taylor in the latter’s first plate appearance since the grand slam. There were no outs in the bottom of the second inning. Murphy hit a solo shot to start off the frame, with singles from Rendón and Wieters to follow. It was only the second inning, but with the scored tied 1-1 with runners on first and second the LI was 1.92, which is borderline high leverage (and remarkably high for the second inning).
Taylor’s subsequent three-run home run boosted the team’s win expectancy almost 20 percentage points to 82.5 percent. He homered in back-to-back plate appearances against two talented pitchers. But the most impressive part of Taylor’s back-to-back heroics is where Hendricks’s pitch was located.
The ball was on the outer half of the plate and above his shoulders. Do you have any idea how hard it is to hit a home run on that pitch? Even on a fastball that was just 86 MPH? You could take Aaron Judge or Giancarlo Stanton, get a pitching machine to continually put the same pitch in the same spot, and they would have trouble duplicating Taylor’s result with any kind of consistency. That is one of the reasons why this home run was so fun and exciting.
My BtBS co-worker Audrey Stark did a fine job describing Taylor’s breakout season over at Federal Baseball. I will not rehash what she wrote here; suffice it to say that Taylor became a league-average hitter in 2017 thanks to a big increase in power. It made him above replacement level for the first time in his career, and with a solid 2.6 bWAR at that.
While it would be incredibly difficult for Taylor to duplicate what he did in the post season over any longer period of time, his power is for real. It is hard to imagine a speedy center fielder with a great glove that has better than average power, but that is who Taylor is. In fact, as he moved through the minors, scouts believed in his power far more than his they did his ability to hit for average. The uncertainty is whether or not Taylor will consistently make enough contact to access that power. Even in this breakout year, his contact rates and whiff rates ranked in the bottom fifteen in baseball among hitters with at least 400 PA. There is no nice way to put it: his plate discipline is terrible, and that is the kind of innate skill that is very difficult to fix.
Taylor is likely not a true-talent .338 wOBA hitter. He cracked a .300 OBP for the first time in his career in 2017 thanks to a fair amount of BABIP luck. It is also hard to believe that he will post another plus-.200 ISO when his previous career high was a .145 ISO. He didn’t seem to be hitting the ball any harder: his 34 percent hard-hit rate was only a few percentage points higher than the previous year.
There are two main differences that led to Taylor’s breakout season. The first was Taylor trying to join the so-called flyball revolution by boosting his flyball rate. The second was Dusty Baker finally doing right by Taylor.
Since joining the Nats in 2016, Baker has appeared to learn some long overdue lessons. His exemplary personnel skills are undeniable, but his in-game tactics and lineup constructions have earned him a lot of criticism over the years. Last season, Baker frequently put Taylor at the top of the lineup. It was because of the tired belief that you need to put speed in the lead-off spot. Now we know that speed does not matter if you can’t get on base to begin with. As they say, you can’t steal first.
Taylor has a .237 OBP in 325 career plate appearances in the lead-off spot. Dusty finally understood the problem and had Taylor primarily hit seventh or eighth in 2017. Perhaps I am reading too much into soft factors, but it very well could be what turned Taylor around. What I do know for a fact is that Taylor would not have been in the position to hit those postseason dingers if it were not for Baker dropping in him down in the lineup. He put his player in the best position to succeed. That is what good managers do.
With Jayson Werth likely to leave in free agency, Taylor will probably become the full-time center fielder, sliding Adam Eaton over to left field. I will be curious to see what the projections for 2018 think about Taylor’s true talent. It is almost certainly not that of an above-average hitter. But with his speed and defense, Taylor does not need to hit much to be very valuable, just more than he did before 2017. If his postseason performance is any indication, he could be a key piece of the Nationals’ lineup for a long time to come.
. . .
Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.