There’s a lot of swing and miss in Michael Taylor’s game.
The newest Royal, unveiled yesterday, would be the first to tell you that. And it’s fact.
From 2015 to 2020, among players with at least 1,500 plate appearances, Taylor’s strikeout rate of 31.2 percent ranks ninth. You can live with the strikeouts, right? This is 2020 after all. Three true outcomes and all of that action. But Taylor’s power output is the among lowest among those hitters with the 30 highest strikeout rates. His .158 ISO ranks 29th, just ahead of Tyler Flowers. In parts of seven seasons with the Nationals, Taylor has been an above league average hitter just once—in 2017 when he finished with a wRC+ of 104. Over his career (1,804 plate appearances) he has posted a 79 wRC+.
In introducing the newest Royal on Monday, General Manger Dayton Moore acknowledged Taylor’s offensive flaws, but sees some untapped potential.
“He understands the importance of improving his swing and miss. We understand that as well. He’s a terrific athlete, a terrific talent… We recognize some of the ways Michael needs to improve offensively. He understands that as well. We believe there’s some upside there.”
For his part, Taylor acknowledges where his offensive game has fallen short. The last couple of years he’s been focusing on making contact and not allowing pitchers to jump ahead.
“Putting the in play early in the count… You know, I think I get to too many two strike counts,” Taylor said.
He does get in far too many two strike counts. Nearly 57 percent of his plate appearances go to two strikes. Once that happens, he hits .140/.189/.214. Obviously, when a hitter has two strikes against him, the job is that much more difficult. For Taylor, it was even more so. For perspective in 2020 with strikeout rates at historic levels, batters hit .167/.248/.275 when facing two strikes.
“More recently I made some mechanical changes to my swing to try to make more contact and be more consistent,” Taylor said. “A lot of it is timing… before I had a leg kick. It gave me a lot of rhythm and a leg kick can bring some good things. But I felt like it made me a little streaky as far as timing. So getting rid of that is an effort to make more contact.”
Taylor last used the leg kick in 2018. It was very pronounced.
Starting in 2019, he eliminated the leg kick altogether. He still lifts the heel of the front foot, but he keeps the toe firmly in the dirt.
Along with the loss of the leg kick, it’s also worth noting where Taylor loads his hands. In 2020, they’re much higher than they were in 2018, dropping as he loads. He also doesn’t close off his front shoulder as much as he used to. It’s a quieter swing than previously.
The early returns on the revamped swing weren’t promising. Taylor struggled through the first three months of the 2019 season and ultimately earned a demotion to Double-A Harrisburg. He hit better upon his return when the rosters expanded in September, although it was in very limited action. (Six hits in 12 plate appearances, with only a pair of strikeouts.)
Overall in 2019, Taylor posted a 35.1 percent strikeout rate along with a 68.1 percent contact rate. For perspective, the league average contact rate in 2019 was 76.2 percent.
To his credit, Taylor stuck to the new swing and timing. Last season saw some progress. He cut his strikeout rate to 27.3 percent, the first time in his career he finished with a rate lower than 30 percent. Likewise, his contact rate increased to a career best 71.8 percent. Neither rate is league average, but you can’t deny the improvement. (It should also be noted that the sample size between 2019 and 2020 was exactly the same. Taylor had 97 plate appearances in ’19 and 99 PAs last year.)
“This year I felt like I made big strides just in getting comfortable. After going from a leg kick for so long… basically as long as I can remember, to no stride… for awhile, honestly in that first year I felt like I was stuck,” Taylor said. “Almost hitting in mud or cement where I didn’t feel like I had any rhythm or any kind of momentum going into my swing. It was just from a standstill and launching… that can bring other problems also. It’s been a bit of a long process, but this year I really felt like it was my swing, instead of something I’m trying to adopt.”
Taylor didn’t mention this, but it’s safe to say he hit into some poor luck last year. His BABIP was a dreadful .217, over 100 points below his career rate. Overall in 2020, he hit .197 with an xBA of .231. He’s certainly not going to challenge for a batting title, but bad luck is back luck.
Another thing that wasn’t mentioned is that Taylor is seeing a lot more infield shifts than in the past. In his career year of 2017, he saw a shift a little less than five percent of the time. By 2019, the shift percentage had increased to 34 percent. Last summer, it had bumped a couple more ticks to above 36 percent.
Taylor maintains in remaking his swing he’s attempting to free himself from the strikeout and find discipline. That comes from not always swinging for the fences.
“But I’ve been working on that over the years. Just shortening up my swing, not trying to hit the long ball every at bat and take singles and doubles and things like that. Cutting down on the strikeouts is a huge thing,” he said.
The irony is that once he stopped deploying a “grip-it-and-rip-it” approach, he drove the ball further than he had in the past. His barrel rate topped 10 percent for the first time in his career and his .228 ISO was likewise a career high.
Obviously, hitting is just one facet of the game. Taylor brings plus defense to an expansive center field, an area the Royals have been laser-focused on improving ever since the departure of Lorenzo Cain. “We have to make sure we are as strong as anybody in baseball at catcher, shortstop and center field,” Moore said a couple of weeks ago.
But Moore also wants those positions to provide production at the top of the order. “We have to continue to work hard so we have a legit leadoff and three and four hole hitter. And in our minds, that leadoff hitter, that three and four hole hitter, those impact bats, two of the three need to come from catcher, shortstop or center field. If we’re going to win a championship in this market. And so that’s what we’ve always focused on. We try to be as strong as we can up the middle.”
Taylor doesn’t profile as one of those impact bats in the top of the order. He’s more of a bottom-third type of hitter. But the Royals are betting on Taylor to continue the adjustments he’s made over the last couple of years. It will be interesting to see if the progress he made in 2020 can continue.