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Jameson Taillon might be fulfilling his potential

The Pirates starter made an interesting adjustment in his first game of the year.

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Pittsburgh Pirates
The face of the next Bucs ace?
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

While 2018 doesn’t look too bright for the Piratesthey’re projected to finish below .500 for the third straight year — they have the potential to make some noise if their younger, unproven players come through. The team’s recent struggles are largely due to former top prospects failing to make the leap, from Tyler Glasnow (7.69 ERA last year) to Josh Bell (.262/.343/.457 slash line with terrible defense); those guys playing like they’re supposed to could do wonders for the big-league club.

Jameson Taillon — who, in case you’ve forgotten, was a consensus top-40 prospect four years in a row — wasn’t awful last season, but he could’ve been better. Across 25 starts and 133 23 innings, he posted a 4.44 ERA and 3.48 FIP. In his first outing of 2018, though, Taillon looked really sharp, potentially fulfilling the potential he displayed on the farm.

The Twins are no slouch: They scored 15 runs over three games in their opening series against the Orioles, and FanGraphs projects they’ll average 4.50 runs per game — which ranks sixth in the majors — over the rest of the season. So Taillon’s performance (20 batters faced, four hits, no walks, nine strikeouts) is pretty impressive, even if the final line (two runs in 5 13 innings) doesn’t stand out.

Most of the attention following this game has been on Taillon's secondary pitches. He had a pretty ridiculous changeup working all day:

And Minnesota had trouble with the curve, too:

But the bigger story here — the one that elevates this from “good outing to start the year” to “potential harbinger of a dominant pitcher in the making” — is the fastball.

Taillon’s always worked with two heaters — a four-seamer and a sinker. In 2017, he relied on the latter (35.1 percent of his pitches) more than the former (28.9 percent). That started to change toward the end of the year, though:

Image via Brooks Baseball

For the first five months of the season, Taillon favored his sinker. (I should note Taillon made only one start in May, after which he underwent surgery for testicular cancer.) But down the stretch, he switched to a four-seam focus, and it paid off — after a brutal slump in July and August, he rebounded with a 3.25 ERA and 3.05 FIP in September.

It’s easy to see why he made this change. Taillon’s four-seamer has tended to be a better out pitch than his sinker:

Taillon four-seamer vs. sinker

Pitch Strike% Called strike% Swinging strike%
Pitch Strike% Called strike% Swinging strike%
Four-seamer 68.5% 20.0% 8.3%
Sinker 64.7% 14.7% 8.9%
Numbers are from 2017 season. Data via Brooks Baseball

Their whiff rates are essentially identical, and the four-seamer gets a lot more called strikes (as we’ll see in a moment). Plus, his sinker was responsible for a lot more hits — its BABIP against was .375, compared with .315 for the four-seamer.

On Monday against the Twins, the adjustment was still there. Taillon threw 62 total fastballs, and according to Brooks Baseball, 42 of them were four-seamers. Again, they got the job done — 31 of them went for strikes, nine were called strikes, and nine caused a whiff.

Look at the way Miguel Sano flails at this four-seamer on the outside corner. It’s not easy to catch up with a heater that tails away from you like this:

GIF via MLB.com

Nor is it easy to lay off a fastball on the outer edge of the strike zone, as Jason Castro unwisely decides to do here:

Of course, framing helps.
GIF via MLB.com

This was only the second time in Taillon’s career he’s struck out nine batters in a game, and if Clint Hurdle didn’t have such a short leash — pulling him after 92 pitches? Really? — he probably could’ve hit double digits. The two runs notwithstanding, this was a pretty superb game for Taillon, and it might not be the last one, either.

Despite those pessimistic projections, the Pirates have started the season 4-0, making them one of two remaining undefeated teams (along with the Nationals). This team still has a lot of talent, which could take it a long way if it fulfills its potential. And no one epitomizes that better than Taillon, who could be on the road to greatness after years of injuries and mediocrity. Amazing what a simple repertoire tweak can do.