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 Boston Red Sox 40-man roster and identifying a key question for them pertaining to the coming season. 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, at least as things are scheduled right now. Obviously, the lockout may change the timing of the season, and it also means we will likely see more additions of new faces. If need be, we will add some weekend posts to fit any and all additions to the 40-man before Opening Day. You can catch up with every post by following this link. With that, today we cover Josh Taylor.
The Question: Can Josh Taylor improve against righties?
The Red Sox haven’t been quite as busy as some other teams in these first few days of the post-lockout period, particularly with the bigger names on the market. They also haven’t been totally inactive, though, focusing particularly on left-handed help for the bullpen by signing Matt Strahm and Jake Diekman on Sunday. Help in the bullpen was needed, and particularly from the left side as they had very little depth there beyond the top three. Diekman specifically looks like a guy who could slot into a late-inning role regardless of handedness, but they have an internal lefty who could fill that role as well. Josh Taylor doesn’t always jump out as a late-inning arm, but he’s an underrated pitcher for this team who, during the lockout, was arguably their one of their top two or three relievers.
Taylor has flown under the radar for most of his Red Sox career, starting with 2019 when he made his major-league debut and quickly emerged as one of the team’s key relievers. Now, it took a little while to build up to that kind of role, and by the second half of the season a whole lot of fans were understandably tuning out of the team. So it makes sense that people may have missed that Taylor finished the season with a 3.04 ERA and a 3.11 FIP over 47 1⁄3 innings. The 2020 season basically a lost year for him as he had a late start due to COVID and just threw 7 1⁄3 forgettable innings.
That brings us to this past season, and early on it looked like Taylor was picking up where he left off in 2020, which was certainly not what we were looking for. But he recovered as the season went on, ultimately becoming the one of the more trusted arms in the bullpen by the postseason. On the year, Taylor pitched to a 3.40 ERA with a spectacular 2.83 FIP, striking out nearly 29 percent of his opponents with an 11 percent walk rate.
That said, while I’m relatively high on the Red Sox lefty, if you look beyond the surface numbers there are some concerns here with Taylor moving forward. Largely, it comes down to consistent command. His walk rate is higher than you’d like to see, especially compared to his eight percent rate in 2019. He also managed to keep his home run rate down, but did so while allowing a lot of hard contact — he was in the 11th percentile in hard-hit rate, per Baseball Savant — and not really keeping the ball on the ground any more. It’s hard to see his low home run rate being sustainable, so he’ll need to find a way to cancel out any regression there.
To me, the easy place to point is his performance against righties. That 2019 season wasn’t just impressive because of the way the base numbers ended up. What stood out to me the most about that first major-league season for Taylor was how well he pitched against righties, allowing a .302 wOBA against opposite-handed pitchers. In 2021, however, that number jumped up to .381, with more walks being issued and more balls being hit in the air, and particularly for line drives. Of course, line drives are the batted balls that are mostly likely to result in a hit by a wide margin.
So, how does he improve here? I think it comes down to the pitches he’s throwing, starting with his best offering. Taylor’s success in large part comes down to his slider, which is one of the best individual pitches in the Red Sox bullpen. It wasn’t terrible last year or anything, and in fact was quite good overall. He induced whiffs on 47 percent of swings against the offering and batters had a .236 expected wOBA against it. Against righties, though, there were some mistakes. The whiff rate was still there, as the big sweeping breaking ball is hard for anyone to put the bat to when it’s located properly. However, when contact is made it was a lot harder last season. On average, batted balls against the slider were hit 95 mph, compared to 89 mph in 2019. The issue was simply that he made too many mistakes. Below you can see where he threw the slider in 2019 versus 2021, and you’ll see for the latter more dark red in parts of the zone where you don’t want a breaking ball ending up, and that will result in hard contact against major-league hitters.
I would also point to the slider as a way that this performance against righties can improve. This is not really a pitch he throws very often, and actually threw it a little more against lefties than righties, but against the latter it performed very well. Per Baseball Savant, it limited opponents’ average exit velocity to 86 mph with an expected wOBA of .273. With righties crushing the four-seam fastball to the tune of a .493 expected wOBA, it may be a good idea to try and sprinkle in more of these two-seamers, which won’t induce a ton of whiffs but should at least limit damage.
The Red Sox bullpen is currently one filled with a lot of question marks, and while we don’t know whether or not they are done making additions, it seems hard to imagine a scenario in which they won’t need a handful of internal options step up to perform in late-inning roles. Based on the performance in his career to this point, Taylor is a sneaky option to take that mantle. He needs to fix some things, though. His home run rate seems prime for some regression, so he’ll need to find a way to reverse that trend, and improving his performance against right-handed batters and getting back to his 2019 levels on that front would be the most logical path for that happening.
Statistics in this post from Baseball Savant and FanGraphs