We have a myriad of reoccurring themes around here. We frequently riff on the value of resilience and resourcefulness. Particularly for a professional athlete, these characteristics are critical. Add in a dense layer of less than perfect luck, and Matt Taylor needed (and still needs) the aforementioned attributes for his very survival. He earned my respect with his tale in the form of an inspiring guest post below. Enjoy.
I’ve always dreamed about baseball. Even though the subject stayed the same, my dreams have been forced to evolve.
Growing up an Atlanta Braves fan, I always had the luxury of being able to flip the channel to TBS on any given night during the dog days of summer and see MLB games being played. Those Atlanta teams in the 1990s and early 2000s played a crucial role in my passion for baseball due not only to their success but to their accessibility. The chance to watch the best players in the world on TV every night cultivated a desire to watch, learn, and imitate what I was seeing.
I recall booting up my Nintendo 64 and trying to build the best team in the game in Ken Griffey Jr. Slugfest Baseball. Roster construction, lineup order, front office management, bullpen usage…all things I thought about from even a young age.
My dreams didn’t stay confined to the TV, however. Early on, I’d constantly compare myself to Jim Edmonds and the over the shoulder basket catches he made patrolling Busch Stadium. I saw glimpses of my game in Barry Larkin…largely due to my Wilson model infield glove with his name emblazoned in looping cursive script.
One of my first evolutions came from realizing that a left-handed shortstop had no future in the big leagues. My attention turned to pitchers – Tom Glavine, Al Leither, and of course the infamous D-Train, Dontrelle Willis.
It turned out to be a good evolution for me. In 2011, the Baltimore Orioles gave me the opportunity to chase the dream of becoming a Major League baseball players. I was the wide-eyed, freshly drafted kid with a 96 mph fastball from the left side. It seemed like I was well on my way.
I knew every player faces setbacks, and I was no exception. It’s inevitable in life and baseball. My Low-A 2012 season was interrupted by surgery. I needed elbow surgery to remove bone spurs and loose bodies. Shortly thereafter, I had a series of kidney surgeries that left me bedridden for close to 8 weeks. Luckily, these were just temporary obstacles, and I bounced back from that difficult 2012 season with a successful 2013 season. I logged a career high in innings pitched, I didn’t miss a start, I finished the season fully healthy.
Or so it seemed on the surface. The next step in the evolution of my dream was looming, even though I didn’t immediately recognize it. I had always considered myself a power pitcher, with a plus fastball. After surgery, though, my velocity had dropped 6-7 MPH. I stubbornly believed it would come back. I had always thrown hard, so surely it would return…right? Why should I adapt as a pitcher? In a sport that fears change, I fit the mold easily.
As my velocity continued to decline, I began to panic. I looked for answers everywhere…watching hours of video, working with my coaches, outsourcing instruction. Hit with a flashback to my days spent as video game GM and my little league Hall of Fame role-playing, I began searching for big leaguers with similar pitch repertoires. I was 23, needing to reinvent myself as a pitcher, and about to embark on a statistical odyssey that would see me run headfirst into sabermetrics.
My search led me to Jeff Locke. The left handed pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates (and 2013 All Star) became one of my favorite pitchers. He had a merely average fastball, but he was succeeding by doing something better than any other pitcher. He was pitching inside at an extremely high rate (one that current sits at the top of Major League baseball at 49%).
My obsessive monitoring of pitch sequences had begun earlier, originally spurred by a “Hardball Times” article from 2009. After watching Locke pitch, my interest of inside heat reached its zenith. The article encouraged throwing inside, even providing data that supported an average fastball becoming one of the best in baseball by aiming it high and tight on a hitter. I frequent the website “FanGraphs,” and it seemed every time I visited the website, they posted information on pitch sequencing or highlighted the value of certain pitches in certain counts.
I realized pitch sequencing was an enormous aspect of pitching I had long overlooked. I simply trusted what the catcher put down instead of relying on research and data. My obsessive monitoring of pitch sequences had led me to what the Pirates’ front office must have stumbled on as well – their entire rotation has thrown inside more than all of baseball, and subsequently, their pitchers give up a below-league-average slugging percentage.
The data proved that this could be a successful strategy, and I needed to do something. I laid out a clear plan of attack for the upcoming 2014 season. The transformation from a hard-throwing pitcher to a soft-throwing one is something no pitcher wishes to undergo, but I was determined to grow as a player. I was no longer wielding a blinding down-and-away fastball. I know the shelf life in professional baseball is short. The questions then became how could I extend my window? How could I prove to an organization I was still able get batters out despite losing fastball velocity?
I was anxious to begin 2014 with my new approach. I attacked hitters inside. Fastball up, fastball up and in, doubling up inside. I topped out at 89 MPH, but I had the most successful first half of my career. I was leading the Carolina League in wins and ERA, named to the All Star game…and experiencing lower back pain every time I started. With each start, the pain progressively worsened. The diagnosis of a herniated disc sidelined me for 3 months.
I was heartbroken…and afraid. Here was another setback – I spent the entire offseason remolding my game and retooling my arsenal to find the best way to succeed. Would the Orioles give up on me? Could I stay healthy?
I was devastated, but I suddenly found myself with a lot of time on my hands. Every player knows the misery of rehabbing at the spring training facility while their teammates are playing and competing hundreds of miles away. My day looked like this:
- Wake up at 6 AM
- Eat breakfast at team facility
- Rehab with the training staff from 7-9 AM
- Return to the hotel for the remainder of the day
- Repeat daily.
My days were done before my teammates had even woken up. I was determined to use my forced downtime to hone my mental skills. I have been fortunate over the past two seasons to build great relationships with people more intelligent than me. I am a big believer in surrounding myself with people smarter than me. Two people that have had an impact on me and my knowledge of sabermetrics are Reggie Yinger and Hart Mizell. Reggie has been there for me by offering statistical evidence to back up my research. I am an avid reader, and Reggie always has a baseball book on hand to offer me. Hart is a teammate from college and a historian who presented at SABR 45 this past June. He is constantly available for discussion whenever I think about making an adjustment.
I felt mentally strong when I came back from the DL. I returned in the middle of August, confident that the setbacks were behind me, and I could finally start progressing towards my dream. A few rough starts followed, but I figured I was just not physically where I needed to be.
A relatively normal offseason followed, and I began back where I had been, in the Carolina League. 3 starts into my 2015, and I heard two loud cracks. The world went dark.
I woke up and came to my senses in a hospital bed in Salem, Virginia. My head was clouded and throbbed with pain. I had no understanding of what happened. Getting injured is one thing, but having your mind taken from you becomes a whole different experience. I had taken a 100 MPH line drive less than a centimeter from my left temple. I had post-concussion symptoms that lingered – irritability, nausea, amnesia, and sensitivity to light and sound all defined my world.
This was arguably the toughest period in my life. I wondered if I would pitch again. Was this it? My symptoms finally subsided after five weeks. I was nervous walking into my first simulated batting practice, but the competitiveness kicked in after one pitch. I attacked batters as if nothing had happened. But my evolution wasn’t done.
My pitching had not been where I expected dating back to August of 2014. I noticed a significant increase in fly balls, to the point where I got nothing but fly balls during my simulated game. I had chalked 2014 up as a small sample size, but the sample had grown and there was still no change.
Red flags abounded. Our pitching coordinator, Rick Peterson, had always stressed the importance of ground balls for pitchers without a large percentage of swing and misses. Something needed to change. I knew the half-life for below-average velocity, low strike out, high fly ball pitchers was short (unless your name is Jamie Moyer). Even Mark Buerhle has maintained league average ground ball rates throughout his career and even sustained above average rates at times. I had to do another overhaul. My career depended on it.
Once again, the data backed up what I was seeing between the lines. In 2014, Major League hitters batted .239 with a .020 ISO (Isolated Power) average and .220 wOBA (Weighted On Base Average) on balls batted into the ground. As for fly balls? A .207 batting average, but with a .378 ISO and a .335 wOBA. A fly ball generates less base hits but far more extra base hits and home runs. Here’s an excerpt from “FanGraphs” on batted balls:
We know that pitchers do not have complete control, or even much control at all, over what happens to a baseball once it’s put in play, but they do have some control over the type of batted ball they allow. If you allow ten ground balls, you can’t control if zero, three, or nine go for hits, but you did control the fact that none are leaving the park. On the other hand, fly ball pitchers can usually limit the number of hits they allow, but that also makes them more vulnerable to home runs.
A league-average ground ball rate is around 44%, fly ball rate around 35%, infield popups around 11%, and line drives (the worst thing a pitcher can allow) around 21%. Prior to my back injury, I had maintained an average hovering between 52-54%. While that was solid for a left-hander, I knew that I needed to add a feature to my package to make me stand out, since my strikeout numbers and velocity were more pedestrian. I needed to become elite at getting ground balls. This evolution would be my best way to survive.
Line drives are death to pitchers, while ground balls are the best for a pitcher. In numerical terms, line drives produce 1.26 runs/out[R/O], fly balls produce 0.13 R/O, and ground balls produce only 0.05 R/O…A line drive produces 1.26 runs per out, while fly balls produce 0.13 runs per out and ground balls produce 0.05 runs per out. In other words, batters want to hit lots of line drives and fly balls, while pitchers generally want to cause batters to hit ground balls.
Imagine that. More empirical evidence backing the ground ball! I uncovered countless articles that backed my conclusions on ground balls.
It was time to dive back into the research. After watching video and tinkering with my mechanics, I found the minor adjustment to my delivery. I had developed a habit after my back injury of fighting to throw more over the top. By allowing my arm to work in a more natural slot, I got nearly instantaneous results. My next simulated game was nothing but ground balls. Since I returned from the disabled list on July 5th, I have generated more groundballs than ever.
Everyone says “if you have a jersey, you have a chance.” I had the jersey, but to keep the chance, I needed to adapt or die. Baseball has enough information available that I could carve out a niche and hopefully give myself the opportunity to compete and play this game as long as possible. In a game famously resistant to chance, if I wanted my career to have a chance of surviving, I had to evolve. It would be an advantage of have Yordano Ventura’s fastball or Clayton Kershaw’s curveball, but that’s not who I am. We all succeed through identifying our strengths and sharpening them. Our dreams don’t have to die, but sometimes they do have to evolve.