Nationals Promote Breakout Prospect Michael Taylor: What Should We Expect?
In the wake of injuries to outfielders Jayson Werth and Steven Souza, the Nationals have promoted breakout outfield prospect Michael Taylor to the Major Leagues. A 2014 Future’s Game participant and Eastern League All-Star, the toolsy center fielder has been rewarded for his terrific performance, but will face a significant challenge at the Major League level.
Taylor possesses four legitimate above average major league tools: power, speed, glove, and arm. Notably absent is the hit tool, which I consider the most important of the five. Nevertheless, before getting to the concerns surrounding the hit tool let’s take a look at the many things he does well.
Taylor is listed at 6’3”, 210 pounds, the latter of which seems very generous. He has an athletic, slender frame with a lot of room to add muscle, but is presently far from being filled out. The frame projects well down the road and it is easy to see Taylor adding 15 pounds without coming close to being too big for his skill set.
His present slender frame doesn't hinder his above average power, as he's smacked 22 home runs in 458 Minor League plate appearances this year. When he makes contact, the contact is loud and the exit velocity is seemingly high, especially for a player not close to being filled out.
This power hasn't always been present for Taylor, as he hit only 10 home runs last year and three the year before, but the improvement makes sense as he has added muscle over the past few years in the Minor Leagues. It seems rational to not only accept his present power output as legitimate, but to project the tool to play even higher down the road. His hit tool may limit the ultimate utility of the power tool, but if the hit tool can play Taylor could hit 20 to 25 home runs annually at the Major League level.
The speed is another above average tool, which impacts his game in many ways. He has swiped 34 bags in 42 tries this year and also stole 51 bases in 58 tries last season, both highly impressive totals. During one of my looks this season Taylor also showed a willingness to utilize his speed in bunting for a hit, which is a sign of a player with good awareness and feel for the game.
The speed also helps his defensive profile in center field play up to at least plus. He demonstrates good instincts, route-running ability, and closing speed, which combine to give him terrific range. Taylor is a fearless defender with a knack for making the highlight-reel plays and should be a welcome addition to the Nationals’ outfield. I have not seen enough to grade his arm, but Baseball Prospectus rated it as a 60 (on the 20-80 scale) in the offseason, a grade that would further boost the defensive profile. The complete defensive package is easily above average, and Taylor should immediately provide significant defensive value in Washington.
The biggest question mark with Taylor is the utility of the hit tool. He hit .313 at Double-A Harrisburg, and .385 in 17 plate appearances at Triple-A Syracuse, numbers that are well past his career norms and largely unsustainable, especially as he faces better competition.
The biggest reason for the projected regression with the bat is the extremely high strikeout rates demonstrated by Taylor both this season and throughout his career. Excluding two brief tenures lasting under 20 plate appearances (Syracuse this season and Low-A Hagerstown at the end of the 2010 season), he has never had a strikeout rate below 20 percent. In his first taste of the upper minors in this season at Harrisburg, his strikeout rate increased to a career high 29.5 percent.
Strikeout rates don’t go down once prospects are promoted to the Major Leagues. Unless Taylor makes an adjustment, it's reasonable to expect his strikeout rate to be around 30 percent in the Majors, and possibly higher. To put that figure in perspective, a 30 percent strikeout rate would rank fifth in Major League Baseball among the 151 qualified hitters. This is a real concern and Major League pitchers will certainly aim to exploit the swing and miss in Taylor’s game. He may be hitting well in the high minors this year, but Taylor’s strikeout’s will prevent him from ever hitting close to .300 in the Major Leagues.
On the positive side, Taylor isn't a player who strikes out a lot simply because he swings at everything, as he takes walks at around a 9 to 10 percent clip. Even if he posts a low average, Taylor ought to be able to maintain a reasonable on-base percentage due to his solid walk rate.
Apart from the strikeouts, Taylor’s average will regress due to outlandishly high batting averages of balls in play of .421 at Harrisburg and .455 at Syracuse. As a player with good power, Taylor hits the ball hard and can be expected to post high BABIP’s throughout his career, but .421 and .455 are too high for even the best hitters. No qualified hitter in the Majors carries a BABIP of even .375 or higher, let alone marks well into the .400’s.
A return to normalcy of Taylor’s BABIPs will mean a significant drop in batting average for the young hitter. The Oliver projection system forecasts a batting average of roughly .230 for Taylor at the Major League level, and quite honestly, I don’t disagree with that projected figure. This is a player with an abnormally high BABIP that could lose .100 points and still be average and an extremely high strikeout rate that may increase at the highest level. Even if the BABIP stays above average and Taylor cuts down on the strikeouts, I can’t see him ever hitting above .260 in the Major Leagues. It will take a fluke-BABIP season, such as the one he is currently enjoying, for him to ever post a good batting average.
Although it may seem like I’m down on Taylor, that is far from the case. I was very impressed with his power, speed, and defense in both of my looks this year, and although he will lose value with the strikeouts, he can still be a very useful player in the Washington outfield. Batting average is not the statistic that it used to be, and teams and fans alike are beginning to appreciate players that can contribute without racking up a large quantity of hits. Taylor will be one of those players, as he will make a positive contribution in nearly every other facet of the game.
If he can reduce the strikeouts, Taylor could blossom into a first division player (i.e. a starter on a contending team). The four other tools are in place, and if the hit tool doesn’t drag the rest of the profile down, Taylor has a chance to hit 20 home runs, steal 35 bases, and have very good defensive value. If he continues to strikeout at around a 30 percent clip, then 10 home runs, 25 steals, and an average near the Mendoza line could be his ultimate contribution. That’s a wide range of outcomes and the risk is certainly present, but few players can match his exciting power-speed combination.