Chris Taylor’s future

Recently Chris Taylor was a topic of conversation on Twitter between yours truly and an observant follower or two. While that particular back-and-forth was based on a misinterpretation of a previous note I sent out, a discussion about Taylor’s future is warranted at this point.

The former fifth-round pick in 2012 will turn 25 years of age later this month. He’s hit at every level in the minors (see below) and has all the fundamentals of an average or better glove at the second most critical defensive position on the field at shortstop. He’s been inconsistent with the bat in the big leagues, albeit with inconsistent playing time and just 253 plate appearances spread out over 84 games played between several cab rides to and from Triple-A Tacoma. But there’s more in the player that the numbers suggest. Maybe a lot more.

Before I delve into this deeper, let’s establish what a major-league shortstop looks like on paper these days:

Among those with 500 plate appearances since the start of the 2014 season through Monday, the average shortstop in the American League has batted .254 with a .303 on-base mark and a .359 slugging percentage. That produces a .294 wOBA and a wRC+ of 86.  Overall league average wRC+ is 100. The higher that number the better. The shortstop position is back to being one of sound defense and not a lot of offensive production, with few exceptions such as Troy Tulowitzki, Xander Bogaerts and Carlos Correa.

Taylor absolutely has the present ability to come close to the .254/.303/.359 triple slash AL shortstops are putting out the past two seasons, but probably not without playing six days a week and ironing out some wrinkles. One of those wrinkles dwells in his swing.

At Cheney Stadium Tuesday, Taylor was out taking extra batting practice, which is nothing new for the Virginia product, Stefen Romero and others. (Romero seems to always be among those taking the early BP). Despite Taylor’s inconsistent performance at the plate in the majors — .170/.220/.223 in 102 PAs in 2015 after a decent stretch in 2014 that resulted in a .287/.347/.346 line — not much, if anything at all, has changed with Taylor’s swing.

There are things to like about Taylor’s swing;  he stays back consistently, uses the backside frequently and he hasn’t sold out on a ground ball swing plane that might increase his average a bit but certainly rip him acceptable extra-base ability.

What I don’t like is the hitch that starts his hands, his load. Here’s why:

Taylor has punched out 70 times in 253 plate appearances in the big leagues, 27.6 percent of the time. That’s a power hitter’s strikeout rate.  He;s just under 20 percent in Triple-A the past two seasons, a little high for a bat that won’t produce much power.

Since Taylor doesn’t chase much — his 23.5 % O-Swing rate is a  lot lower than most hitters, even good ones — and he rarely chases big (significantly out of zone), the strikeouts are due to two things; one, learning which strikes early in counts he shouldn’t offer at, and two, and most importantly, he’s swinging through a few too many pitches a major leaguer should hit. His Z-Contact rate is as much as 5-6 percentage points lower than it needs to be.

The hitch in his swing makes him late on good velocity and perhaps later than is ideal on offspeed stuff.  Most hitters — almost all — have more power to their pull side. If the barrel is even a bit late to the zone, Taylor will swing and miss more, primarily versus fastballs, and get to his power a lot less. I’m not just talking home run power, I’m talking line drives that reach the left-field corner, split the outfielders and get to the wall and fly balls that may leave the yard sometimes.

The left side of the image provided by BrooksBaseball.net shows Taylor’s spray chart in the big leagues, including last season. The right side is his time in the majors this season. Both display how backsided Taylor has been. Some of this is because Taylor doesn’t want to get out front, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Derek Jeter made a career of it. Some of it is determined by his inability to catch up to good velocity, due to the hitch — a quick twitch downward of his hands — in his swing. It doesn’t appear this is being worked on, however.

Taylor’s career minor league slugging percentage is .460, and .474 in Triple-A. While much better pitching and even tougher ballparks will cut into that without question, that number strongly suggests there’s more in the bat. But Taylor isn’t being pitched as precisely and with as much velocity and quality offspeed stuff in the minors as he will in the big leagues — obviously — hence the consistent production in the minors and limited signs of production in the big leagues. Considering this issue, coupled with spotty playing time, Taylor has had little chance to perform at the plate in Major League Baseball. Even with the swing issue, Taylor is better than the .170/.220/.223 line he’s produced this season. With an adjustment that shallows the hitch or eliminates it altogether, the book that was penned by the rest of the league the second half of last season — when he hit for a stretch, and then didn’t — will have to be rewritten.

And the result is probably a big-league shortstop, somewhere between fringe-average and average. That’s a valuable asset for any club.

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Jason A. Churchill

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