Welcome to Over the Monster’s One Big Question series. For those unfamiliar, this is something of a season roster preview where over the next 40(ish) (week)days we’ll be taking a look at each player on the 40-man roster prior to the season. If changes are made to the roster between now and Opening Day, we’ll cover the newly added players. Rather than previewing what to expect in a general sense, the goal of this series is to find one singular question — sometimes specific, other times more general — for each player heading into the coming season. We’ll go alphabetically one by one straight down the roster, and you can catch up with the series here. Today, we cover Josh Taylor.
The Question: Can Josh Taylor take another step forward and lead this bullpen?
The Red Sox pitching staff is highlighted by their very shallow rotation, and for good reason. That is what will derail this 2020 season for the team if the year is in fact derailed, and every ounce of attention that area gets is wholly deserved. That said, the bullpen is interesting in its own right. The group is completely set, but there are at least five players who are guaranteed a spot assuming health in Brandon Workman, Matt Barnes, Josh Taylor, Marcus Walden and Darwinzon Hernandez. Heath Hembree likely has a spot too, though his is probably a little less guaranteed, insofar as there can be degrees to guaranteed-ness.
I think this unit is okay, or at least better than it seems to get credit for. It would be good if they had a more top-end talent at the head of the unit, but that top five is very serviceable and should do the job more often than not. That sounds damning with faint praise, but it’s enough for a bullpen that finishes in the top half of the league this year.
Whatever you think of this group, it does appear there is a fairly clearly hierarchy as we look forward to Opening Day, which is not something that could be said at this point a year ago. Brandon Workman is going to start the season as a starter, and Matt Barnes is going to be right behind him. Josh Taylor, Darwinzon Hernandez and Marcus Walden will mix and match in the sixth and seventh innings, too, while also getting some chances as openers. Of course, hierarchies at the start of the year rarely last through an entire season. Just think back to where Brandon Workman was at this point last season. Things will change as the year goes on, whether it’s due to injury, performance variance or a combination of the two. I don’t know if the change will be as dramatic as Workman’s soar last season, but don’t sleep on Josh Taylor’s potential to jump to the top of the bullpen by September.
Obviously, this won’t just be about Taylor. As good as he can be, there’s only so high he can go on the depth chart if the guys in front of him are pitching well in their own right. In this case, that means Workman and Barnes. Throwing aside the injury possibility, which exists for every pitcher, both of these guys have paths to taking a step back. Workman struggled mightily with walks last year, and it’s not hard to see that biting him in 2020. Barnes, meanwhile, is basically the poster child for performance falling short of true talent. The Red Sox obviously hope both of them pitch like late-inning arms all year, but if they don’t Taylor could be the next man up.
I think it’s kind of easy to look at the possibility of Taylor being a top arm in the bullpen and dreading it. It’s not entirely unfair, but also it’s not hard to overlook how good Taylor was last year. That success largely flew under the radar because of everything else on the negative side that happened to this team last year. But Taylor was a legitimate breakout in his rookie year. The southpaw ended up pitching 52 games and throwing 47 1⁄3 innings last year, pitching to a 3.04 ERA, a 3.13 FIP and a 3.94 DRA. Adjusting for park factors, those numbers were 37, 31 and 20 percent better than league-average, respectively. Taylor struck out 32 percent of his opponents and walked only eight. He allowed fewer than a home run per nine innings, a rare feat in the juiced ball season. According to Baseball Prospectus, he was 40th in swinging strike rate among 351 pitchers with at least 800 pitches, finishing in the top 75 on pitches both in the zone and out of it.
Any time a player who, like Taylor, entered the year without much in the way of pedigree performs like this in his first season, particularly as a reliever and with this relatively small sample size, there is going to be fear of a sophomore slump. It happens for guys with pedigree who played full seasons as rookies, so it would be silly to dismiss that for a guy like Taylor. That said, there are things to be excited about.
First and foremost is his slider, which is a legitimate weapon and has been since he was in the minors. This is the pitch that stood out the most through his entire run in the majors last year. Taylor’s breaking ball was thrown a little under 40 percent of the time according to Baseball Savant, and the numbers were dominant. He induced whiffs on the offering over 46 percent of the time and opponents averaged an exit velocity below 83 percent when they did manage to put it in play. Overall, the slider gave up an expected wOBA of .204 and an actual wOBA of .199. On a rate basis, FanGraphs rated the pitch as the 23rd most valuable slider in baseball among 398 pitchers who threw at least 40 innings. He was right behind Aroldis Chapman on that leaderboard.
The issue, which didn’t really turn into a big issue last year but could prove to be one moving forward, is that his fastball didn’t really live up to the slider. Taylor can pump in the heat on average around 95 mph, which is nice, but the command can be inconsistent. Below you can see where he threw the pitch last season, with a lot of red in the middle of the zone.
This is where the next step forward for Taylor can come if there is one. Among the keys for pitchers at the highest level is keeping a batter’s eye level constantly changing, and he has the repertoire to do it. The slider is kept at the bottom of the zone, and if he can consistently get that fastball out of the middle of the zone and up at the top of it or a little above it, he can take another step forward. He got there at times last year, it’s just becoming more consistent in that respect.
One of the fears for a lefty taking a big role in a bullpen is always going to be platoon splits. There are, after all, many more right-handed hitters than lefties. That was not a concern for Taylor, though. His slider was actually better against righties than lefties (though it was great against both), and he ended the year allowing a .302 wOBA against righties. Remember, wOBA is on an OBP scale, so that is a very good mark.
The ideal situation for the Red Sox, of course, is that Taylor improves the consistency with that fastball and takes this step forward from an already very good baseline while Workman and Barnes also live up to expectations. In that case, Taylor can be kept in that sort of roaming role in the sixth and seventh inning. He’ll also likely be used as an opener at times, which can add another layer to his value. Bullpens never go according to plan, though, and you need guys to step up into more important roles as the year goes on. Taylor can be that guy in 2020 if the opportunity arises.