With the uncertainty the Pirates’ starting rotation has been known for this season, there has finally been a turning point; a stabilization, a return to equilibrium. One of the men responsible for that changing of the tide is right-hander Jameson Taillon, who quietly became the starting staff’s most efficient pitcher and then cemented his status Thursday afternoon as their most consistent to date.
Taillon’s eight-inning, scoreless performance against the Padres at PNC Park was his eighth quality start out of his first 10 in the major leagues and his sixth in a row, lowering his ERA to 2.85 in his first 60 innings.
The Pirates need look no further for their no. 2 starter to compliment Gerrit Cole. Taillon has emerged to claim the role, and he is still evolving while having done so.
“I think incrementally he’s just working to get a little bit better,” said manager Clint Hurdle after Thursday’s game. “He’s a good student of the game. He’s pounding the zone, working the right way, and I love the rhythm and the pace he works at as well.”
Taillon threw 108 pitches (58 for strikes) while allowing only three hits and two walks with four strikeouts. Hurdle credited pitching coach Ray Searage, bullpen coach Euclides Rojas and catchers Chris Stewart and Francisco Cervelli for continuing to work with Taillon between starts to help with game-planning and preparation.
“The catchers and Ray really game plan quite well,” Taillon said. “I don’t shake much. I just kind of throw whatever those guys put down. They’re doing their homework.”
“I think when he has a question he goes and searches out an answer,” said Hurdle. “Some guys like to engage a little bit more. I think he’s more specific. When he wants something he knows who to go to and get it. That game-planning part of it I think is already becoming something that he looks forward to.”
A clear sign of Taillon’s maturity is a willingness to counter-punch when hitters are starting to punch back, an idiom Hurdle uses often when talking about his rookies’ growing pains. Taillon recalled consecutive four-inning starts against the Chicago Cubs and Los Angeles Dodgers in June as the time when he realized he needed to change his approach.
“I thought early guys were starting to look out over the plate and use the opposite field pretty well off of me,” he said. “It’s no secret I like to throw my curveball in strikeout counts or when I’m ahead in the count, so I’m just kind of playing with pitch sequencing and selection.”
The ability to manipulate the curveball alone is something Hurdle considers a very special trait, one that Taillon has mastered while entering his mid-20s, and one that Cy Young Award-winning pitchers like Barry Zito and Clayton Kershaw used as a calling card early in their careers.
“That’s the beauty of it,” Hurdle said. “It’s like a bowler with a big hook, how they can add and subtract to it, and I think he has that ability to add and subtract to it, throw it with more velocity, take a little bit off, to move it a little bit, to shape it up. I think he takes some different shots with it.”
The blending of his curveball with his still-developing changeup to complement his two-seam fastball — which he admits he is still learning how to use effectively — has created a reliable mix of pitches that allows him to work deep into games and keep opponents off-balance.
“I felt like I hadn’t been throwing my changeup much to righties, so I wanted to mix that in and give it another weapon,” Taillon said. “I don’t want to be a two-pitch guy to right-handers. But at the same time, I think my strengths are good enough to carry me in this league for a while.”
According to his teammates, Taillon carries himself with the composure of a veteran who has already been here for a while. First-hand accounts of his composure and poise have followed him through each level of the minor leagues, and now they are being told in the big leagues.
“It’s awesome, his confidence and stuff,” said infielder David Freese of playing behind Taillon. “His composure is incredible as young as he is at ten or so starts in. He’s learning. He’s always watching, always talking during the game. He wants to be great out there and it shows.”
I imagine the Pirates will happily accept greatness from Taillon in the long run, but for now, being consistent and reliable will just have to do.