The Cubs identified Jameson Taillon early in free agency and they landed him late Tuesday/early Wednesday with a four-year deal worth $68 million. That’s more than twice what ESPN’s Kiley McDaniel had projected in November and it’s significantly higher than what had been considered a lofty goal of beating Jon Gray‘s $56 million agreement with the Rangers last season, but that’s where the market has gone this winter.
While I’ve expressed concern about adding another pitcher who doesn’t really bring much new to the rotation, it’s very encouraging to see Jed Hoyer’s willingness to stretch.
Taillon, who just turned 31 last month, is familiar to Cubs fans from his time with the Pirates as a top prospect who flashed ace potential. The No. 2 overall pick in 2010 out of The Woodlands HS in Texas, Taillon debuted in June of 2016 and posted a 3.38 ERA over 104 innings. He’s been up-and-down since and his best season came in 2018, when he pitched to a 3.20 ERA over a career-best 191 innings, but he’s always been a strike-thrower and he’s gotten very split-neutral over the last few seasons.
Pitching in the AL East didn’t help Taillon’s home run numbers, which jumped by about 50% after joining the Yankees (0.93 to 1.40 HR/9) and dealing with short right field porches in New York, Boston, and Tampa. More of it may be a function of the Yankees’ pitching philosophy or a decision Taillon himself made to get away from the sinker. After throwing it more than the four-seam early in his career, the righty almost abandoned it in 2021 and was under 11% usage in ’22.
The result was a drop in groundball rate from around 48% with Pittsburgh to under 40% with the Yankees. So the real issue wasn’t that he was giving up more home runs per fly ball, he was just giving up way more fly balls. I have to imagine that’s something the Cubs have identified as a major area of focus when it comes to getting Taillon back to better, more consistent performance.
I can’t help but think about how Sonny Gray saw a big jump in performance after getting away from the Yankees and into the NL Central a few years ago. Now with the Twins, Gray experienced a resurgence following a trade to the Reds in 2019 and he ripped the Yankees for forcing him to pitch according to their philosophy and not his own style.
While it probably helped that he was reunited with pitching coach Derek Johnson, who was Gray’s college coach at Vanderbilt as well, there’s ample reason to believe Taillon could see at least a little positive regression. If I had to guess, I’d say Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy and other members of Craig Breslow‘s pitching infrastructure will specifically target the sinker as a means by which to improve their new charge’s performance.
As you can see in the chart below, which pulls movement data from Baseball Savant, it wasn’t just a matter of Taillon using the pitch less. Though it’s never been the kind of wicked offering that gets regular run on Pitching Ninja’s Twitter feed, Taillon’s sinker was solid for the most part and really played up well in that ’18 season. But after missing much of ’19 and all of ’20 following surgery to repair his UCL and a torn flexor tendon, the sinker…sunk.
Though it’s been very consistent in both inches of drop and break, Taillon hasn’t generated as much of the former and he’s gotten away from the pitch as a result. He seems to have had a difficult time finding the feel for his slider, curve, and change during that first season in New York as well, which led to very elevated four-seam usage. As fun as it would be to bag on the Yankees here, I wonder if comping Taillon to Codi Heuer would be more worthwhile.
As you may recall, the righty reliever became expendable during his time with the Sox because he too had lost the feel for his sinker. Heuer didn’t really throw a four-seam at the time, so Hottovy began working with him immediately on some grip changes that would allow him to separate his hard stuff into two separate offerings.
“He’s basically throwing one pitch in between a four-seam and two-seam grip and not maximizing either one,” Hottovy said after the Cubs acquired Heuer. “If it were a true sinker, it’d be moving a certain way, and it’s not.”
That lack of differentiation made it difficult for Heuer to set up his change and slider, something Taillon may have struggled with as well. I wonder if it’s a residual effect of his surgery, possibly a change in grip strength resulting in an imperceptible difference in finger pressure. At the risk of making yet another comp, I feel compelled to note that Tyler Glasnow‘s unorthodox fastball grip is a function of a carpal tunnel procedure that reduced the flexibility of his right hand.
The Cubs certainly have a better idea of this than I do, but their doggedness in pursuing Taillon despite the steep increase in cost makes me believe they feel very good about the potential to correct something with relative ease.
What’s more, this move tells me they’re not even close to being done spending money. I felt the same way about Seiya Suzuki and Marcus Stroman last season, but you don’t go out and get Cody Bellinger for a year and then add Taillon to the rotation if you don’t have something bigger in the works. Jed Hoyer says they’ve still got lots of offers out there and several sourced reports confirm as much, so I suspect we’ll get more news in the coming days.
If I had to guess, I’d say Dansby Swanson and a catcher are the next moves.
Ed. note: Taillon did change his mechanics following his second TJ surgery in 2019, though it was very much a conscious decision aimed at reducing stress on his elbow. The decision to get away from the two-seam was more a function of hitters being “able to start scooping the bottom of the zone for power,” which is funny because we saw above how much worse his home run numbers got after he became more reliant on his four-seam.
The Cubs are known for working with pitchers to throw two-seamers up in the zone, so perhaps that is something Taillon could benefit from. He said in that above-linked interview that he’s trying to run the two-seam in on righties rather than trying to get sink, and that the pitch’s movement profile complements his fastball better now.
At the risk of contradicting what he’s saying in an effort to support my own theory, I’m having a really hard time reconciling Taillon’s claims with the data. Maybe he’s right on the money and I’m dead wrong or maybe he just didn’t want to throw his team under the bus. Whatever the case, I believe there’s some really great stuff for the Cubs to work with.