The Pittsburgh Pirates continue to find themselves in the thick of the dog fight that is the MLB playoff race. For an organization that relies heavily on the production from their home grown products, they have arguably the two best pitching prospects in the game in Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon anchoring their Altoona rotation.
Last night, the Curve rolled out Taillon to make his Double-A debut at Waterfront Park against the Thunder in a supreme match up on the hill against Trenton All-Star ace, Brett Marshall.
Marshall came into last night trying to straighten out the sudden struggles he has run into this month after a dominating July that saw him go 3-1 with a 2.20 ERA. In three August starts, Marshall had gone 2-1 with a 5.31 ERA and for the first time showed signs of possible fatigue having set a career high in innings pitched with 141.1.
Altoona would draw first blood when first baseman Matt Curry singled sharply on a line drive to left field to score DH Adalberto Santos. Taillon toed the rubber for the first time in Double-A staked to a 1-0 lead; it turns out that run is all he would need to earn his first career win at the level as Altoona would go on to win, 5-0. Taillon certainly looked the part of a future ace. The 6’6” righty would go five innings, allowing just four hits on no runs while walking nobody and striking out six on just 67 pitches.
“I think I threw something like 60 pitches or so, which is something I’ve been working on all year; my pitch counts,” said Taillon. “With that being said, you know the pre-game plan was that I was only going to go five innings anyway. It was definitely a good first one.”
Marshall on the other hand was forced to work and battle all night long, having surrendered ten hits through his six frames of work, allowing four earned runs while striking out seven and walking nobody.
Taillon went 6-8 with a 3.82 ERA in 23 starts with the Bradenton Marauders of the Single-A Florida State League to open the 2012 campaign before garnering a promotion to Altoona last Friday. Taillon admits that he was a bit surprised at the timing of the promotion, but relishes the opportunity to gain a few starts in the upper levels to build off of heading into the off-season.
“Yeah, I was a little bit surprised, honestly,” Taillon admitted. “I had been pitching pretty well my last couple of starts down there and I was definitely excited to get the call. This will be huge for me, these three starts or whatever I have while I’m up here just to carry over into next year and kind of get a feel for the upper levels.”
Perhaps the most impressive thing to take from Taillon’s Double-A debut is the big fat zero in the walk column in his final stat line. Even more so than the same zero in the run column, a young pitcher typically struggles throughout the ladder of the minor league system with control and command. I thought for Taillon to come out and throw strikes consistently and to remain persistent when falling behind was unprecedented for a 20-year old pitcher in his first start in an advanced skill level.
“That’s a big thing for me, no matter what level you’re playing at,” said Taillon. “You’ve got to go out there and challenge guys. I take it personally; I don’t like giving guys free bases. I’d rather give up a hit than a walk.”
As for a firm game plan, many pitchers don’t know what exactly to expect heading into a new level and a new league with talent that is for the most part, foreign to them. Last night, Taillon was just trying to trust his stuff to go out and get outs regardless of how he got them.
“To be honest, having my first start at this level, my goal was to just go out there and kind of see what the hitters gave me,” explained Taillon. “Everyone in this whole four days that I’ve been up here has just said to go out there and do your thing. They don’t miss the mistakes as much as previous levels but, it’s still baseball, 60 feet 6 inches so I just go out there and chuck the ball and see what happens.”
Having talked to many young pitchers this season, like Cole, Marshall, Drew Hutchinson among others, the one consensus thing they will all attest is that the biggest adjustment from ‘A’ to ‘AA’ is that hitters are much more patient and in tune with their approach. Taillon was able to notice a substantial difference in the skill level of the Trenton hitters compared to what he had been facing all season long.
“Yeah, I definitely noticed it,” Taillon admitted. “They still miss a couple balls here and there. I know there was a double, actually, two doubles, that were hit pretty hard that in a previous level, might be decent pitches for outs, and here, you know that no matter what the count is, they’re still going to hit it hard somewhere.”
The Pirates used the second overall pick in the 2010 MLB Draft to select Taillon out of The Woodlands High School in Texas. He is regarded by many scouts to be the most talented player in that draft class aside from Washington Nationals outfielder, Bryce Harper, who was selected number one overall. Baseball America ranked Taillon as the eighth most talented prospect in baseball heading into this season, and his growth as a pitcher this season has only confirmed that acclaim.
“I’m just a more complete pitcher than I was earlier in the year,” Taillon said. “Going into the year I was kind of raw. I had good stuff but I wasn’t really into the whole, pitchabilitiy type deal. Setting up hitters, how to read hitters, checking out their reactions and what they give me. I have come a long way with that this year. Also, learning how to kind of call my own game. I love what catchers put down, I love working with them but at the end of the day what they put down is a suggestion and I’ve gotten better at knowing what I want to throw in certain situations.”
Part of a pitchers transformation from phenom prospect to actually fulfilling ace potential is maturing mentally and harnessing all of the talent that an organization pays top dollar to invest in. Pittsburgh awarded Taillon with a $6.5 million signing bonus when they drafted him. At that point he was just a raw high school talent with a good fastball. Since that juncture, Taillon has come full circle and learned how to command both a curve ball and change up while being able to throw his heater with less effort while maintaining both control and high 90’s velocity.
Last night in his shutout victory, Taillon thrived primarily on a fastball that sat consistently at 97 mph with a sharp curve ball. Though he did not have a great feel for his changeup on the mound last night, he still feels as though that is the pitch that is going to get him to the big leagues and help him thrive.
“It’s been a big year for that pitch,” said Taillon. “I’ve throw it a lot. I’ve come a long way with it; I’m comfortable throwing it in any count. I threw about five changeups and I just never really had the feel for it. I threw it pretty well in the pre-game pen and my curve ball wasn’t that good. Then you go out there in the game and it’s a completely different animal. The fastball-curveball were great; changeup was never really in the game plan. Beginning of the year, I’m probably trying to get it in there somewhere and make it work, but tonight, I’m just trying to get outs any way possible.”
Taillon added, “This late in the season, that’s probably about all I’ve got,” speaking of his high 90’s fastball velocity. “There’s another gear there if I know I need it, like a 0-2 fastball or going in on somebody trying to blow it up. That’s another thing I’ve taken from this year; more reps, more pitches. I’ve gotten to know my delivery a little better and I’m just able to throw the same velocity with a lot less effort and more consistency.”
Cole and Taillon are not only the Pirates top two organization prospects and the corner stones of their future starting rotation; they are symbols of what Pittsburgh is on the verge of becoming. At this point, the Pirates are already a playoff team a few years ahead of schedule. When Taillon and Cole are eventually major league ready contributors, they will likely be a top tandem in the game for the next decade. Just to relay how much Pittsburgh believes in the two young hurlers; they have invested $14.5 million in signing bonus money between the two, $8.0 million for Cole and $6.5 million for Taillon. In comparison, the entire 2012 Pirates major league rotation will make $14.3 million
“Both of us have really great stuff and I think at any level if we can execute our pitches, there’s not much hitters can do,” said Taillon. “The biggest thing for us is just limit the mistakes; good hitters are going to hit them. Get ahead, kind of the simple stuff like that is our focus. Don’t give into guys, if you get into a 2-0 count, don’t serve him a cookie. Walks are alright; I hate walks, but at the end of the day Id also rather give up a walk than a home run.”
Taillon added on his close knit relationship with Cole, “We started the year together and now we get to finish together up here. It’s just fun to have my throwing partner back.”