Welcome to our 2019 Red Sox in Review series. This is, as you can probably guess, where we will be reviewing all of the players who made at least a modest impact on the Red Sox in 2019. Every week day we’ll be deep diving into one player every day. For each edition we’ll describe the season in a sentence, look at the positives from the year as well as negatives, look back at our one big question from the season preview and look ahead to the 2020 season. We’ll be going in alphabetical order of the players on this list. You can look over that list, too, and drop a name in the comments if you think I left anyone out who should be mentioned here. Got it? Good. Today we focus on Josh Taylor.
2019 in One Sentence
Josh Taylor started the year as a relative unknown and mildly intriguing depth option in Triple-A and ended it as one of the most trusted relievers in the bullpen.
As I was looking over the year that was for Taylor, I was kind of struck by just how well-rounded his performance was. Basically everything that you looked at was a positive, whether it be just generally or after adjusting for expectations. I knew Taylor was good, obviously. I have eyeballs and watched the games. What I’m not really sure I realized was how damn convincing it all was on paper along with the eyeballs.
Take, for example, his control. This is one that falls under the category of being good compared to expectations, as it was more average than good in a vacuum. Over his last couple of years in the minors, including to start 2019, Taylor was walking at least ten percent of his opponents. In his 47 2⁄3 innings in the majors, he walked only eight percent. Given his stuff and ability to limit solid contact, both of which we’ll get to, an average (league-average was 8.9 per nine in 2019) walk rate is plenty good enough for the southpaw.
Now, in terms of sustainability this is probably the most concerning strength from the season. While he was limiting walks, Taylor was also missing the zone at a pretty high rate. According to Baseball Prospectus, the southpaw hit the zone only 42.4 percent of the time. That was the 35th lowest rate among the 371 pitchers who threw at least 750 pitches this season, putting him in the bottom tenth of the league. The lefty was able to limit his walks because he induced swings on pitches out of the zone at an above-average rate (top 30 percent). If batters start showing more patience, something is going to have to give.
As for the rest, well, Taylor was good. His strikeout stuff wasn’t really Barnes-ian or anything, but he did set down 32 percent of his opponents. That’s a very good rate even in 2019 for relievers when everyone is throwing triple digits in their sleep. The league-average rate for relievers this year was 24 percent. The key, clearly, was missing a lot of bats. He wasn’t hitting the zone, so it’s not like he could rely on called strikes. Here, Taylor was just outside the top ten percent in overall swinging strike rate, with the biggest chunk of those swings and misses coming on those pitches out of the zone.
Perhaps even more encouraging than the peripherals — he had a 3.14 FIP (69 FIP-) and a 3.94 DRA (81 DRA-) to go along with his 3.04 ERA (63 ERA-) — was that he continued to get better as the year went on. He struggled in his first few outings (35 percent of the runs he allowed came in his first five appearances, or 9.6 percent of his outings) but quickly found his footing. Once we got to the other side of the All-Star break, which took up 30 of those 47 1⁄3 innings, Taylor dominated. In those 30 innings he pitched to a 2.40 ERA while opponents hit just .181/.277/.305 for a .259 wOBA.
Now, it should be mentioned that his strikeout and walk numbers actually got worse in this stretch, but A) his rates were still 31 percent and 10 percent, respectively, and B) even though his .234 BABIP is extremely low it’s not nearly all luck. Taylor did a great job of reducing hard contact all year, with Baseball Savant saying solid contact and barreled baseballs made up only 12.3 percent of his batted balls. To put it another way, Baseball Savant uses batted ball quality to estimate an expected wOBA against any given pitcher. Taylor’s expected wOBA was .295, which ranked 95th among the 523 pitchers who faced at least 100 batters.
In terms of his arsenal, all of the success comes from the slider. Or, at least a healthy chunk of it. It’s not terribly surprising that a guy who induces so many swings (and misses) on pitches out of the zone does so because of a wicked breaking ball, but Taylor’s was special in 2019. His slider induced whiffs (per Baseball Savant) on nearly 47 percent of swings (an absurd number) while inducing an expected wOBA of .204, which is only a little worse than the actual wOBA of .199. According to FanGraphs pitch values, on a rate basis Taylor’s slider was the 24th best in baseball among the 398 pitchers who threw at least 40 innings. He came in right behind Aroldis Chapman.
Now, Taylor isn’t Chapman, and that’s in part because he doesn’t have that big, dominant fastball to go with the slider. The southpaw does get into the mid-90s with his heat (he averaged just under 95 mph on the four-seam in 2019) but that’s not all that impressive in the context of 2019. It’s a fine pitch, but it’s more average than anything. The same can be said for his two-seam fastball, which throws 14 percent of the time. If he wants to take the next step, he needs one of those offerings to take a leap forward to join his slider.
The one area in which Taylor really didn’t meet expectations in 2019 was with his ground ball rate. It’s hard to say whether or not this was by design — he threw his four-seam much more than his two-seam — but the reasoning wouldn’t be a mystery if it was. Boston’s outfield defense was significantly better than its infield counterpart, so it makes sense for pitchers to play into that. Of course, when they’re using golf balls like they were last year, that can be costly from time to time. Even with all of that, though, Taylor’s home run rate (an even 1.0 per nine innings) was hardly egregious.
The Big Question
Is Josh Taylor the best left-handed option for the Red Sox in 2019?
He sure was. In fact, Taylor was arguably the second best reliever in the entire bullpen last season, with the only case for putting Barnes ahead of him being the innings. Either way, Taylor was the top southpaw and figures to continue to be that moving forward. Darwinzon Hernandez has the potential to be better, but we’ve seen Taylor do it before.
I was a little skeptical of Taylor before I wrote this piece. I’m in now. Taylor is a beast, and like I said if he can get one of those fastballs working even a bit better this is a legitimate late-inning arm who can be trusted against righties and lefties. We’re not talking about a guy around whom you build a bullpen, of course, but if he’s the third or fourth guy in the ‘pen you are in very shape.