As we bear witness to his scoring hot start to 2017, we should begin to wonder when and how drastically Chris Taylor will begin to fade. Surely, no one expects him to keep up his robust .395/.521/.684 triple slash over an entire season, but a revamped swing and approach give credence to his profile as a legitimately improved player.
A spray-and-prey, line-drive oriented approach worked well for Taylor in the minors, but major-league pitching gave him more than just some fits. In two stints and barely a cup of coffee with the Seattle Mariners over 3 seasons, Chris Taylor hit no home runs and just 12 extra base hits in 256 PA, good for a .240/.296/.296 line overall or a 71 wRC+. In May of 2016, he was dealt to the Los Angeles Dodgers for fading pitching prospect Zach Lee in a trade that is just now producing dividends for LA.
Taylor has not been a proponent of the “fly ball revolution” given that his launch angle on fly balls and line drives is lower with the Dodgers than it was with the Mariners (incredibly SSS be damned), but in his 48 PA since his call-up from AAA in 2017, he has hit the ball incredibly hard, leading to a 219 wRC+. Currently, Taylor’s average exit velocity (EV) is 3rd in the league (no batted ball event qualifier) at 95.0 mph, and his average EV on fly balls and line drives is 102.0 mph, or 2nd in the league. Before that excites you too much, let’s consider a couple variables, including other members of the leaderboard.
While Chris Taylor may sit 3rd in EV thus far this year, he is keeping company with notable power hitters, including Miguel Sano, Khris Davis, and Miguel Cabrera. Throw in first-full-year guys like Aaron Judge and Joey Gallo, and we see that not only does Chris Taylor stick out on this list, but he outright does not belong in the group. The formally light-hitting, defense-first prospect may have added a higher leg kick and a more efficient load to his pre-swing over the offseason, but I have a hard time believing he can swing it with the strongest guys in the majors.
I do, however, believe there are legitimate reasons for his current surge. In a sample size as small as 48 PA, some weird things are bound to happen, and in the case of this SSS, Chris Taylor has fully taken advantage of the weirdness – and then some.
From his debut through 2016, Taylor saw first-pitch strikes 64.8% of the time. So far this season, that number is down to 43.8%, a near 7 percentage points lower than Bryce Harper’s 50.7% mark, which was the lowest among qualified batters in 2016. To highlight what a boon a first-pitch ball can be, we note the following data from across the league in 2017.
|Through 0 – 1||.221||.268||.351||66|
|Through 1 – 0||.259||.377||.435||122|
Not only has Taylor been given the advantage of starting 1 – 0 in a disproportionate amount of his plate appearances, but his Zone% is down to 39.9% in 2017 compared to 53.5% for the rest of his career. I don’t think pitchers have been quick to pitch around a resurgent Chris Taylor –rather, a new version of Chris Taylor has taken advantage of the dearth of strikes he is seeing. As pitchers haven’t challenged him, Taylor has had no problem flashing incredible plate discipline.
In theory, laying off pitches outside the zone almost entirely has allowed Taylor to constantly pick his spot to put a good swing on a bad pitch. Consequently, he is putting the ball in play to his pull-side more often and with greater EV across the board as noted earlier.
While I would agree that his new swing has improved his ability to drive the ball, I do not think these metrics are indicative of budding power just yet. I am inclined to believe that as Taylor sees more strikes, his new swing will not be enough to boost his offensive profile to that of an everyday player. Although Taylor looks like an improved hitter to me, as pitchers start to attack him more aggressively and with updated scouting reports, his EV should take a significant hit, leading to a precipitous drop in his power numbers and his batting average as well, as his still low average launch angle may lead to too many ground outs in the long run.