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Josh Taylor has another step to take

It’s just not a guarantee he gets there.

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If you’re a daily reader of the site, you probably have noticed a whole lot of my energy has gone into writing about the bullpen in recent weeks. Part of this is because focusing on this part of the Boston Red Sox roster has been my niche, for lack of a better word, for basically a decade now. Part of it is because there is nothing going on in baseball, and it’s very hard to find anything to discuss. But mostly it’s because the bullpen just appears to be a mess at the moment, with the degree of messiness really coming down to the team’s plans with Garrett Whitlock and Tanner Houck.

As was illustrated in my roster prediction from earlier this morning, unless the team surprises us with a big splash they are going to need internal pitchers to step up and round out this group. That of course includes Matt Barnes, whose reversion back to his first half self is a topic we’ve discussed here already. If we take Whitlock and Houck out of the conversation, though, it’s not clear who the team should be looking at internally for a boost. As we get closer to the season we’ll be taking individual looks at some of the other options who could take that step forward, starting today with perhaps the most underrated player in this bullpen: Josh Taylor.

Taylor first entered the organization as something of an afterthought, coming over from the Arizona Diamondbacks in a deal that sent Deven Marrero out to the desert. Taylor first came to Boston in 2018, spending that season in Portland and showing there may be some more promise than maybe we had thought when he first arrived. The southpaw then made his debut in 2019, and while that season was a bit of a slog as a fan and people understandably tuned out a bit as we got into the latter third of the season, Taylor really thrived at that point and showed some potential while no one was watching. Unfortunately, 2020 would prove to be mostly a lost year for him as he got off to a late start due to a positive COVID test and never really found his footing, tossing only 7 13 ineffective innings in the shortened season.

All of that served to make Taylor a wildcard heading into 2021, but one with underrated potential given the fact that, as mentioned above, people weren’t paying a ton of attention when he was at his best in 2019. The southpaw came out last season looking more like he did in that 2019 season, but with some growing pains. He remained under the radar to many fans in large part because he came out of the gate struggling. Taylor made 10 appearances in the month of April, allowing at least one run in five of them, including the first three.

We know as humans how important first impressions are, and it can take a while for a reliever to dig himself out of a perception hole created at the start of a season. But Taylor was able to turn things around and ultimately put together a very solid season. Eventually appearing in 61 games totaling 47 23 innings, he pitched to a very solid 3.40 ERA (75 ERA-, putting him 25 percent better than league-average after adjusting for park effects) and an even better 2.83 FIP (67 FIP-). He’d also allow a single run over four postseason innings, allowing four hits without a walk and striking out two.

On the surface, his performance was quite similar to that impressive 2019 debut, with his park-adjusted FIP coming in a bit better and the park-adjusted ERA a little worse. And the big thing that carried over from that season leading to his success was his slider, which is far and away Taylor’s best offering. A sharp breaking ball, it was his most-used pitch in the 2021 season being thrown about 46 percent of the time, and it was devastating for opponents. The lefty’s slider induced swings on a whopping 47 percent of swings — among 113 pitchers who threw at least 100 sliders, only 10 had a higher whiff rate — while opponents mustered a wOBA (all-encompassing offensive stat on the same scale of OBP) of just .200 and an expected wOBA (taking into account batted ball data) of .236. A truly effective reliever needs at least one money pitch, and Taylor has that in his slider.

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That said, there was still a little bit concern about his ability to take that next step and be the consistent late-inning arm this team so desperately needs. Aside from the slider, perhaps the biggest reason I was so high on Taylor coming off of that 2019 season was the fact that he was a lefty who showed very little in the way of platoon splits. Especially in a league that now has the three-batter rule which takes away much of the LOOGY value a pitcher can have, those even splits can be huge. In 2019, he allowed a .239 wOBA against lefties and a .302 against righties. There’s a split there, but both numbers are strong.

However, last season that split success did not carry over. Taylor was still plenty effective against same-handed hitters, with lefties putting up a dismal .183 wOBA against the southpaw. However, righties had way more success, finishing with a .381 wOBA. There were 443 pitchers who recorded at least 60 outs against righties last season, and only 29 allowed a higher wOBA. Part of it was likely some small sample noise, as he allowed a much higher batting average on balls in play against righties despite only a minor change in hard-hit rate. On the other hand, his slider was hit much harder by righties, still inducing whiffs but also with mistakes being punished with hard contact at a much higher rate than they were against lefties. And probably more importantly, righties had a much easier time laying off bad pitches, walking at a 13 percent clip compared to eight percent from lefties.

I still think Taylor is among the most underrated players on this roster, and if we take Whitlock and Houck out of the conversation then there’s a solid argument for him being the best reliever in this bullpen, or at least in the top two with Barnes. Yes, that speaks more to the quality of the group as a whole than to Taylor, but there’s still plenty to like here. He’ll need to shore up his slider command against righties and show that he can pitch against opponents of either handedness if he’s really going to take that leap, but he has the tools at his disposal. Taylor has the top-tier pitch you need to be successful, and he has multiple seasons in which he has shown he can be quite good. Now it’s just about finding the consistency to take that next step this team clearly needs from somebody.

A thanks to FanGraphs and Baseball Savant for the data in this article.