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One Big Question: Is Josh Taylor’s 2019 slider going to be back for 2021?

I’ve extended the invite, fwiw.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Atlanta Braves Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the annual Over The Monster One Big Question season preview series. Over the next 40(ish) days, we will be running through every player on the 40-man roster and identifying a key question for them pertaining to the coming season. This should run us up to the start of the season, at least as it is scheduled now. We will go through the roster in alphabetical order. For the most part, these will run Monday through Friday every week running up to the week before Opening Day, though expect some weekend posts mixed in as well as the 40-man is expected to continue to be altered before the start of the season. You can catch up with every post by following this link. Today we take a look at Josh Taylor.

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

The Red Sox have their share of issues in the bullpen, most notably that they are lacking a truly elite arm to anchor the group. Where I think they could be underrated, though, is the depth in potentially good set up arms. Matt Barnes and Adam Ottavino both have the upside to be near the top of that tier, and a whole lot of other guys have the potential to be on the lower end. The word “potential” is doing a whole lot of heavy lifting there, of course, and inevitably a good chunk of those pitchers won’t get to that point. But the more options you have, the better chance you have one or two that stick. And among the options, the one who could potentially surprise people the most with his ability to stick is Josh Taylor.

Taylor has never really been able to find any sort of spotlight. He entered the league as an undrafted free agent, first signing with the Phillies. He’d eventually be moved to the Diamondbacks, who would then end up sending him to here to Boston as the player to be named later in the deal that sent Deven Marrero to Arizona, which was not exactly a blockbuster deal.

Toronto Blue Jays v Boston Red Sox Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images

Taylor then pitched solidly after joining the Red Sox organization, spending most of that 2018 season in Double-A. He wasn’t terrible, but he also wasn’t so good that people had to take notice. Still, he eventually worked his way up to the majors in 2019, where he was legitimately outstanding. We’ll get to those numbers in a second, but it continues along this theme of him constantly flying under the radar.

Taylor was called up a bit after the season started, and didn’t start to move up into higher profile situations until later in the year. If you’ll recall, 2019 was a pretty apathetic year for the fan base as the team just kind of chugged along in a mediocre season, so people tuned out when Taylor really made his move. And then last year, he barely got to pitch after a late start due to a COVID infection, and when he did pitch he was bad.

So, you end up with a guy who has the talent to be the third best reliever in this bullpen despite flying way under the radar. And pretty much all of that upside is tied back to that 2019 season. In that year, the southpaw pitched to a 3.04 ERA over 47 13 innings with a 3.11 FIP. Adjusting for park effects, he was 37 percent better than league-average by ERA and 31 percent better by FIP. Put another way, he was among the top 10 percent of pitchers in baseball that year (minimum 40 innings) by both ERA- and FIP-. And he wasn’t just riding one unsustainable skill either, striking out 32 percent while walking eight percent and allowing just five homers. It all tracked.

Last season, as I mentioned, the numbers tanked. Going back to ERA- and FIP-, he was more than 100 percent worse than league-average by ERA and 66 percent worse by FIP. But it was also a grand total of 7 13 innings. You can throw out that sample under any circumstance, but you can do it even more confidently with a guy who was coming back from COVID. So, the fact that he slid back in 2020 isn’t really all that concerning to me.

What is concerning, though, is that to be confident in Taylor you really have to be confident that 2019 was real. Like I said, nothing about it looked unsustainable, both by the numbers and by just watching him pitch that year. He very much looked the part of an effective reliever that can play a role in a playoff bullpen. On the other hand, he doesn’t really carry a prospect pedigree and was generally more fine than good in the minors. Was 2019 real enough to keep buying in two years later?

The key is going to be the slider, which is the best weapon that Taylor has. In 2019, it was one of the very best sliders in baseball. FanGraphs has a metric with which they place value on individual pitches, and they also convert that to a rate stat to even things out between relievers and starters. It’s not a perfect encapsulation as no pitch works in isolation, but among the 298 pitchers who tossed at least 40 innings in 2019, only 22 had a better slider by this metric. The Baseball Savant numbers back that up as well, as he induced whiffs on 48 percent of swings against the offering while allowing a wOBA of just .198, which is on the OBP scale.

Last year, it wasn’t just the overall stat line that fell in his small sample season but also the effectiveness of his slider. Whiffs came at a lower rate, and the amount of break he got on the pitch wasn’t there, leading to a far lower chase rate than he had in 2019. The key for Taylor getting back to the level where he’s pitching late in games again will be if his slider is closer to 2019 or 2020.

The Red Sox are going to need players to exceed expectations this year in all facets of the roster if they are going to surprise people with a playoff run. In the bullpen, they have a lot of options to do just that, but Taylor very well might be my favorite of the group. With the exception of Ryan Brasier, he’s the only one who’s really shown it in the majors, and his downturn last season can be tossed aside for multiple reasons. At the same time, his longer-term track record suggests 2019 could definitely be a fluke, even if it sure didn’t look like it. If he’s going to prove that wrong, he’s going to have to come equipped with that nasty slider yet again.