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On Josh Taylor’s unlikely path to a late-inning role

Even just six weeks ago this was nearly impossible to imagine.

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

For the most part, recent downturns in performance aside, the Red Sox bullpen has been a boon for the roster this season. No bullpen will be perfect, but Boston has gotten enough out of their unit to this point in the year where they'll be happy. That said, they’ve still spent much of this season searching for the right mix, as seemingly every time a reliever had pitched well enough to be thrown into late-inning situations they’ve pitched themselves out of that role. Matt Barnes has mostly been a rock in the ninth inning, but the group behind him has been inconsistent and ever-changing.

That brings us to Josh Taylor, who is currently in one of those late-inning roles and is thriving there. It’s very surprising how quickly he’s worked his way into the role, because even just six weeks ago this would have never been imagined. About a month into the season, it looked more likely that he’d be optioned or even designated for assignment than throwing valuable innings late in close games. But he’s here, and it’s not undeserving. And, to this point anyway, he’s been pitching well in the role.

Coming into the season, there were a number of different ways things could go for Taylor, with no easy expectation available. The optimists could look at his 2019 performance and note that it was both outstanding and seemingly sustainable, and that his poor 2020 can be thrown out due to a small sample, that season just being weird, and him missing time before the season after actually being infected with COVID. The pessimists could point to 2019 being an aberration based on the prospect pedigree, or lack thereof, and looking at 2020 as at least some data point even if it’s not a whole one. And when he got off to a terrible start, allowing a run in each of his first three appearances and in five of his first nine, it wasn’t hard to take the side of the pessimist.

Since that time, however, things have been incredible and he’s totally turned around not just the perception of his talent level but also his role on the team. We have to note the small sample and arbitrary endpoints here, but since his ninth appearance of the season he’s been money. That is going back to April 30, his 10th appearance of 2021, and in that time he has not allowed a single run over 12 23 innings, allowing seven hits (six singles plus a double) and walking four while striking out 15. He’s been dominant, plain and simple.

And if you’re looking for reasons to be optimistic, at least on the surface, it’s worth pointing out that this performance is pretty similar to what we saw in 2019. That season was a bit of a slog for the team as a whole and much of his time that year was after many had tuned out, but he was legitimately good that season. This year he has been as well, posting similar strikeout and walk numbers, particularly during this recent scoreless stretch.

And if you want to stretch the comparison even further, you can look at his slider. This was Taylor’s number one weapon by a wide margin back in 2019, but in his short time pitching last summer (he threw only 7 13 innings in 2020) it was just not there in the same way. Back in 2019, he was missing bats on 48 percent of swings while inducing weak contact when the bat did hit the ball. The weak contact was still there last summer, but there was just more of it as the whiff rate fell to 31 percent.

Looking at this season, the whiff rate is back up to where it was in 2019, just three-tenths of a percentage point behind that season’s rate. And on top of that, he’s even throwing it a little more often, making it the focal point of his arsenal in 2021. The velocity on the breaking ball is down just a bit, but that’s not a major concern when everything else is working as well as it is.

In addition to the slider, Taylor has also been good against righties, particularly during this stretch. Early in the season, the southpaw was getting hit all around by opposite-handed batters, but during this current run of success he’s been able to get them at a higher rate. He’s still better against lefties, but righties are striking out 35 percent of the time and they have a hard-hit rate of just 17 percent. The control has been an issue, but it hasn’t manifested itself into runs just yet.

With that being said, there are some reasons to be concerned that Taylor is going to falter and lose his grip on a late-inning role much like others in that role have succumbed to earlier this season. And for me, the biggest concern comes down to the fastball. Taylor throws two different kinds of fastballs, but mostly leans on the four-seam which he throws at roughly the same rate as his slider. The pitch is not overpowering at 94 miles per hour (per Baseball Savant) but at least theoretically should pair well with his slider to keep hitters off-balance with different eye levels and velocities. But the pitch is getting crushed, with a whiff rate just over 20 percent and an expected wOBA (on the same scale as OBP and derived from batted ball data along with other metrics) of .469.

The fastball has never been dominant — the expected wOBA on the pitch in 2019 was .316 — but he needs it to be at least solid as someone who is largely a two-pitch pitcher. And in comparing the pitch to where it was a couple of years ago, it’s not too hard to see the solution, though acting on it is always more difficult than it seems. Taylor is just leaving the pitch too far down over the plate. There are a lot of great fastball/breaking ball relievers in today’s game, and it’s an easy path to success if you execute. You bury the breaking balls down and off the plate to get whiffs, and you keep their eyes up with heat above or at the top of the zone. As you can see below, he was better at getting that fastball up in 2019 than he’s been this year.

2019; via Baseball Savant
2021; via Baseball Savant

To this point, any issues with the fastball have not yet caught up with Taylor, at least not since the end of April. And he’s earned the role he’s been given right now and should continue to get those appearances until he proves he can’t handle them. But the coaching staff and Taylor himself should also stay vigilant in making sure he does stay productive and continues to get results. The slider is already there and doing its job. Now it’s about getting that fastball consistently up in the zone, or above it, and really unlocking a sustainable approach to keep him in the late innings for the rest of the season.