Because the Cubs believe so deeply in their organizational pitching infrastructure, every time a free agent is signed, it’s worth doing the reverse math in trying to figure out what the Cubs see.
Now that the four-year, $68 million Jameson Taillon signing is officially official, let’s dig in on that.
The team’s interest in Taillon was reported basically from the onset of free agency, and they stayed attached to him until agreeing to a deal, initially, at the Winter Meetings. Clearly, the Cubs see something with Taillon, something that their hoard of pitching savants — Tommy Hottovy, Craig Breslow, Daniel Moskos, Chris Young — can assist in bringing out the best version of Taillon’s talents.
But I’ll tell you, whatever it is that they see they can next-level with him … it’s not overtly obvious. Taillon is something of a known commodity with his 787 career innings. His pitch mix and usage has evolved some of the years, but more in a way that felt like he was matching where baseball was heading (more four seamers, fewer sinkers; more sliders, fewer curveballs) than a noteworthy enhancement. He’s a guy whose stuff rates fairly average — the middling strikeout rate backs that up — but has become elite at commanding the baseball.
So instead of feeling confident that I can tell you what the Cubs might have pitched to Taillon to get him on board, let me just throw a few guesses at you instead.
Your Slider Is Actually Plus, Let’s Throw It More
By their raw movement characteristics, there’s nothing outlandishly special about either Taillon’s slider or curveball. The slider is not the sweeper that the Yankees are renowned for teaching, and not a true bullet slider, either. It’s something in the middle, trending a little more in the gyro direction. The curveball has been a go-to offering since his prospect days, an 11-to-5 offering that actually lost three inches of drop in 2022.
However, we also should let the results tell us something about how hitters see the pitches, too. And in this case, they’re easily the best of his arsenal. The curveball yielded a .183 wOBA and 32 Whiff%, while the slider came in second in both metrics at .292 and 26.6%, respectively. Cameron Grove’s Pitching Bot also saw that the slider underperformed what he might expect it to, which I find really intriguing:
While I think the Cubs could project better results simply by his pitches achieving their expectation — and a move to a lesser division might help in that regard — I suspect they’re going to look to increase slider usage. I could see more curveballs, too, though I think its success is at least in part due to its lower usage number.
We Like The Yankees Release Point Changes, Let’s Utilize It With Pitch Location
It’s worth remembering, like Brett has noted before, that the Yankees are no slouches in pitching development at both the Major and minor league levels. Heck, the Cubs spent 2022 trying to copy some of what they do in many ways. So, as I looked at Taillon’s release point, I see one the Yankees clearly identified as needing work when he came to New York.
Their main focus? Using his height to lengthen his stride.
The Yankees saw some bad habits with stride length (particularly the inconsistency that different pitches offered) and brought him back to something more like he did as a top prospect in the middle of last decade. His increased stride adds about a half-tick in perceived velocity, according to Baseball Savant, which helps mitigate the 1 mph he lost from his second Tommy John surgery in 2019.
There’s also evidence that the Yankees were working on something else, particularly during the 2022 season. Look at the monthly change in his release height.
While these are relatively small differences, the trend here makes me think the Yankees were clearly working with Jameson to throw from a lower arm slot. This would offer plenty of benefits, particularly creating some flatness in Vertical Approach Angle that should let Taillon’s pitches that flash above-average ride (namely: four seamer, cutter) to appear to rise more. If the Cubs continue this trend, I suspect they’d ask him to better locate his four seamer up to righties, and better locate his cutter up-and-in to lefties.
Can We Bring Back the Groundball?
When Jameson Taillon returned from his injury in 2021, it seemed like there was a “categorical” shift in the type of pitcher he was. This chart really illuminated it for me. Check out the “GB” column:
It’s pretty crazy to take a guy who was in the 92nd percentile in the league among starters inducing grounders in 2016 to the 15th percentile in 2021. The reason why is really evident in the data, where you’ll see that when Taillon returned in 2021, three inches of vertical movement on his sinker was gone:
Perhaps the result of his shortened arm action (which is a net plus that I don’t think the Cubs will look to change), or perhaps something minor that the Cubs can help him find again. The Yankees response to Taillon’s worsened sinker characteristics was to bury the pitch, asking him to throw it far less than ever before. But the Cubs under Tommy Hottovy have always been a team to throw more sinkers than other organizations, so I don’t expect they scare off from the pitch easily.
The easiest way to get Taillon’s FIP back to the mid-3s area it lived in with the Pirates is to lower the home run rate. The easiest way to lower the home run rate is to allow fewer fly balls. If reviving the sinker can help in that regard, the benefit could be huge.
So We Have This Thing Called the Pitch Lab ( yes, Lab Haters, there’s some sarcasm here ) …
It’s unrealistic to think the Cubs are going to go about adding a pitch, or completely re-designing one of Taillon’s offerings at age 30. However, they’re going to play with tiny changes like crazy. My friend Greg Zumach had the same idea I had as one potential route:
However, I found it noteworthy how Lance Brozdowski pointed out that adding run (which is another way to say reducing relative cut) was likely a goal of the Yankees, opening space for a cutter that became a significant part of Taillon’s arsenal. So, how do the Cubs tackle fastball shape? I’m not sure, but perhaps it depends upon whether the cutter can add horizontal movement first.
From there, we’re talking really small things. We talked about adding more drop to his sinker. I think the Cubs will attempt to add a touch more vertical drop to his changeup, the pitch that yielded the highest slugging percentage of any of his offerings. He’s improved the pitch’s characteristics over the years, and located it really well last year, but it performed far worse than the sum of its parts. Perhaps looking to get those lost few inches in curveball drop will be another project.
One of the great things about modern baseball is how pitching instruction (and sequencing/tunneling data) offers pitchers of any age the opportunity to optimize. The Cubs see improvement coming for Jameson Taillon — the contract tells us that — and I can’t wait to see how they help make it happen.