If you had told a Royals fan back in 2014 that a Kansas City centerfielder would win at least one Gold Glove in the next decade, it wouldn’t have come as a surprise. They would have been a bit more surprised when you told them that the centerfielder would be Michael A. Taylor.
Taylor signed with Kansas City on a one-year, $1.75 million contract back in November of 2020 after coming off a rough 2020 season in Washington. He had only had one season with at least 500 plate appearances and the last season he had stepped to the plate regularly was back in 2018, when he finished towards the bottom of the league in wRC+.
Taylor was a quintessential Royals free agent addition. A good athlete and a good defender with some power upside but who doesn’t walk or make contact enough to be viable at the plate. He was a fourth outfielder and Kansas City asked him to play centerfield every day.
And somehow it worked. Kinda.
Taylor is a known commodity in centerfield. He had two seasons with double-digit Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) with Washington. He consistently showed good range and arm ability. However, given the everyday reigns in a spacious centerfield for the first time, he shined.
Taylor’s 19 DRS were second only to Carlos Correa in over 100 fewer innings and his 15.3 defensive runs above average were tops in the league for a non-catcher. His 13.3 Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) blew every other defender out of the water while his Range Rating was also tops in baseball at any position.
The argument could be made that Taylor was the best defender in baseball. It is fair to ask how valuable defense is in the modern game. Royals fans could be slightly biased towards good defense given how their team won its last World Series, but Kansas City had arguably the best fielders in their league at second base, shortstop, leftfield, and centerfield and they still managed to win just 74 games.
With that said, Taylor’s defense was perhaps the best in baseball and created a great return on the Royals’ initial investment. His 2.5 rWAR was the second-highest mark of his career, the fifth-highest on the 2021 quad, and an absolute steal for what the Royals were paying him.
Unfortunately, he also had to hit. His 77 wRC+ was the third-worst in the American League. To be fair to him, Kansas City batters held the dubious honor as the third, fourth, fifth, and eleventh-worst hitters in the AL in Taylor, Hunter Dozier, Carlos Santana, and Whit Merrifield respectively. So it’s not as if he was the outlier in a bad Royals lineup.
However, he was still exposed as an everyday player at the plate, which shouldn’t surprise us. There isn’t a shortage of defense-first outfielders around the league whose ceiling is a fourth outfielder. Give them 1000 innings in centerfield, and I’m sure a few of them would make runs at Gold Gloves. But they’ll never get that chance because of what we saw with Taylor. His bat simply doesn’t hold up across 500+ plate appearances.
And that was always the dilemma. He’s a fourth outfielder and the Royals asked him to be a starting centerfielder. In my estimation, he greatly exceeded expectations. His defense was good enough to make him a 2.5 WAR player. That’s a higher WAR than Andrew Benintendi. But he has to climb an incredibly steep hill to be valuable. It took best-defensive-player-in-the-league type defense just to make him a solid starter according to WAR.
Taylor is in Kansas City for at least the next two years and there was a somewhat visceral response to his contract. I think that is misguided. The Royals have a talent problem right now, specifically in the outfield. His two-year deal is reasonable for a guy who is a decent insurance policy.
There isn’t a whole lot of outfield depth in Kansas City. It’s yet to be seen if Merrifield or Adalberto Mondesi will be in the outfield in 2022. With Taylor, they at least have a known commodity.
But the reality is that if they keep asking him to play everyday, he’s going to be exposed at the plate. A lot of the frustration with Taylor, in my estimation, comes from him being asked to play a role he is unable to play. As a part-time outfielder, he’s a great asset to have, especially in an outfield like Kansas City’s.
Could he repeat his 2021 season as a full-time starter? That seems very unlikely. ZiPS has Taylor taking a massive step back. The Royals got the most out of him in 2021. He had a 90th percentile kind of season defensively. He isn’t going to take steps forward at the plate, so he’ll need another one of those seasons to break even.
That seems very unlikely. But hey, we’re all Royals fans here. So let’s be honest with ourselves. The Royals probably don’t think it’s that unlikely and there’s a good chance they’ll trot him out in centerfield to open the season.
I have grown to like Taylor and think he was a good player in 2021. But his ceiling at this point in his career is a fourth outfielder and I hope the Royals see that too.
How would you grade Michael A. Taylor’s 2021 season?
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