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2021 in Review: Josh Taylor’s emphatic resurgence

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Taylor became a weapon in 2021, highlighted by 26 straight scoreless appearances over the summer.

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MLB: ALCS-Boston Red Sox at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to our 2021 Boston 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 2021. Every weekday we’ll be deep diving into one player, describing the season in a sentence, looking at the positives from the year as well as negatives, looking back at our one big question from our season preview and looking ahead to the 2022 season. Today we look at Josh Taylor’s 2021 campaign.

2021 in one sentence

Josh Taylor came off of a mostly lost 2020 season and looked like he was going to continue his lackluster snag until hitting his stride in May, ultimately becoming one of the best relievers in baseball for months.

The Positives

Taylor proved that his 2019 season, in which he put up a 3.04 ERA in 47 1⁄3 innings, was not a fluke. The southpaw really hit his stride this past season in late April when he rattled off 26 straight appearances without allowing a run. From April 30 to July 9, the southpaw was perfect out of the bullpen. Then, after a rare four-run blowup on July 10, he finished the year strong, with a 2.60 ERA from July 11th through the end of the regular season.

Taylor spent 2021 proving that he is in fact a back of the bullpen arm, showing time and time again that he is built to pitch in high-leverage situations. According to FanGraphs, Taylor had a .111 batting average against with a .139 wOBA (Weighted On-Base Average) in high-leverage situations. During his unbelievable run, Cora started to trust the lefty in some big spots and Taylor thrived in his increasingly important role. In save situations, Taylor posted a 1.20 ERA in 15 innings with 19 strikeouts to 5 walks.

One reason Taylor was so effective is because of his high strikeout rate, which is obviously crucial for any reliever, but especially so given Boston’s lackluster defense. Taylor got the job done on that front, finishing in the 83rd percentile for strikeout percentage and the 92nd percentile for whiff rate, per Baseball Savant. His ability to put hitters away on strikes makes his overall ceiling (and floor, for that matter) much higher. Taking the ball out of play in high-leverage situations is a strength that cannot be understated, which is partly why he excelled in those spots last season.

Championship Series - Boston Red Sox v Houston Astros - Game Six Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

In terms of individual offerings, Taylor’s slider was by far the biggest individual positive takeaway, but we’ll dive into the numbers behind that statement later. There was also another pitch that worked really well for Josh Taylor, though: His curveball. Taylor’s fourth pitch was his curveball and it was quite effective in limited use. The reliever only threw his curveball 40 times and used the pitch almost exclusively to righties, with 37 of those 40 coming against opposite-handed hitters. In limited use, Taylor did not allow a single hit off of his curveball in 2021, and I’ll be interested to see the 26-year-old increase his curveball usage in 2022 and beyond.

The Negatives

Taylor did not get off to a hot start and was extremely ineffective to open the season. In April, Taylor had an 8.68 ERA with a .400 batting average against. At that point he picked up where he left off in 2020 and looked like he was about to work himself down to Triple-A. He found his slider and became a weapon for Alex Cora, but a rough April severely damaged his season stats. I would consider this month as an outlier after a pandemic offseason like no other and do not expect slow starts to be a regular feature in his career.

The most concerning aspect of Taylor’s 2021 season was how hard he was hit when batters did make contact. The southpaw was in just the eighth percentile for hard-hit percentage, allowing loud contact 45.2 percent of the time. He also was in the seventh percentile for max exit velocity, allowing a hit that reached 116.3 mph.

Part of the problem was his four-seam fastball, which was hit at a .362 clip with a .433 wOBA. It’s pretty remarkable that Taylor was able to be so effective while his fastball was being hit hard at an alarmingly high rate.

His sinker was even worse, which had a staggering .400 batting average against. This however does appear to be an example of bad defense hurting the team, as his xOBA (expected batting average) was only .252. In other words, his sinker was used to put a lot of balls into play that should have been turned into outs but the defense did not make the plays expected of them.

Taylor also needs to increase his command to become an elite reliever, which is well within his capabilities. The 26-year-old surrendered a walk 11 percent of the time, which puts him in the 18th percentile.

The Big Question

Was Josh Taylor’s slider a one-year wonder?

The answer to this question is unequivocally, no. Taylor used his slider 46.3 percent of the time because it was one of the most effective pitches in the game. Taylor’s slider held opponents to a .173 batting average with a 47.2 percent whiff rate. He threw his slider 349 times in 2021 and only allowed five extra-base hits, all of which, were doubles.

2022 and Beyond

At 26-years-old, Taylor still has four more years before reaching free agency. He figures to be a fairly large piece of not only the 2022 team but for years to come. I expect Taylor to be used as a set-up man in 2022 and be thrown into high-leverage situations on a regular basis. He earned my trust, and more importantly Alex Cora’s, as a reliable weapon in the bullpen. It’s never been more important to have a left-handed reliever that is not just a “lefty-specialist” with the three-batter rule in place. Taylor is a valuable piece of the bullpen for that reason alone. Cora will always ride the hot hand in the bullpen week-to-week, but Taylor is going to have to be one of the more consistent pitchers on the team for the Red Sox to be successful, barring some major unexpected upgrades to the bullpen.