Top of the third inning, two outs, and an 0-2 count to Baltimore’s Ramon Urias. Here was a moment for Jameson Taillon to test his new plan.
In the past, Taillon would have thrown a sinker or tried to get Ruiz to chase a breaking ball. But in phase two of his career, he is not only attempting to stay healthy by revamping his mechanics, but to reinvent himself with a Gerrit Cole-style pitch mix that replaces his sinker with a four-seam fastball.
He tried it on Urias, throwing a 93-mph fastball above the strike zone. Urias chased it as hoped, and Taillon was out of the inning.
It’s hard to overstate how significant of a change this was. At no other point in his career would Taillon have chosen that pitch in that spot.
“I can’t really even remember too many fastballs I threw up in the zone to right-handers ever — on purpose.” Taillon said later. “That’s new to me. It’s exciting. That’s a swing and a miss on an 0-2 fastball, where in the past I probably would have taken a few shots at a curveball there or a sinker in.”
This adjustment puts Taillon on trend with the pitching philosophy currently prevalent in the game, and it’s one reason why he was in demand as a trade candidate this past winter, despite a lengthy injury history. The Yankees competed with the division rival Tampa Bay Rays, an organization always adept at finding and redeveloping hidden pitching gems, at prying him from the Pittsburgh Pirates.
In his debut with the team Wednesday night, Taillon was on a strict 75-pitch limit, which will increase as the season progresses. He allowed two solo home runs — a changeup to Cedric Mullins and a four-seamer to Anthony Santander — but otherwise shut down the Orioles through 4 ⅔ innings during the Yanks’ 4-3, 11-inning loss.
In 2018, Taillon threw the four-seam fastball 35 percent of the time, consistent with his career norms. He threw a sinker on 22 percent of his pitches. On Wednesday, he upped the four-seam usage to 42 percent and didn’t throw a single sinker.
“The four-seamer, I thought, was really good,” manager Aaron Boone said. “You saw he made the one mistake to Santander where I thought he was trying to go the other way and it kind of cut on him, leaked on him to the middle of the plate. … other than that, I thought he threw a lot of good breaking balls, mixed in his changeup enough.”
For the sake of balance, we should note that independent evaluators were less bullish than the Yankees on Taillon’s fastball in Wednesday’s game.
“Love his curveball,” said one rival evaluator who watched. “Rest of his stuff is okay. Should get better with more innings after missing so much time. Big, strong frame.”
When we mentioned that Taillon was trying to follow Cole’s approach of emphasizing the high fastball, the evaluator said, “92-94 up in the zone is not the same as 96-100. Two different animals.”
That’s a fair point about velocity. In Cole’s dominant Tuesday start, his four-seamer averaged 96.9 mph and topped out at 100.1 mph. Taillon averaged 93.3 mph and topped out at 95. Cole’s fastball also had better spin.
In order to dominate in the velocity era, Taillon will likely still need to find a few more ticks on that fastball that he plans to use more frequently. In trying to assess his new ceiling, that will be the main area to watch as he builds strength through the season.