So it appears that the Bank of Ricketts is indeed open and the Cubs added a solid arm in Jameson Taillon last night to supplement the 2023 rotation. The four-year, $68 million deal the Cubs made with Taillon exceeds his MLB Trade Rumors contract estimate by $12 million over the life of the deal, it also exceeds FanGraphs’ estimate in both years and value by even more. So what are the Cubs getting in Taillon? Let’s take a look at the numbers behind the contract.
Another contact arm
The Cubs certainly have a type. Below are the guys who threw at least 20 innings as a starting pitcher for the Chicago Cubs in 2022 with Jameson Taillon slotted at the top:
2022 Cubs Starters and Taillon
If you want to know why the Cubs made this deal, just look at the two categories Taillon would have led the Cubs in last season. Taillon threw more innings than any Cubs starter in 2022. He also walked fewer batters per nine innings than any of the Cubs starters in 2022. That walk rate was minuscule, good for a tie for sixth in MLB with Shane Bieber among qualified MLB starters. Only Corey Kluber, Aaron Nola, Kevin Gausman, Justin Verlander and Max Fried walked fewer batters per nine innings.
I honestly view this signing as a contingency plan to replace Kyle Hendricks’ innings in case his work with Driveline is unsuccessful. If Hendricks’ work with Driveline is successful, Taillon becomes a bonus. What team wouldn’t love to have three (Hendricks, Stroman, Taillon) very durable, reliable sources of innings in their rotation?
Honestly, the thing that jumps out to me looking at this table is just how remarkably similar these guys are. They pitch to contact, they don’t strike out more than a batter per nine innings. Their ERAs are better than their FIP.
It isn’t that I don’t like this type of pitcher, I just think it’s very difficult to build a rotation around a bunch of guys who are all very similar pitchers. I would like this group a lot more with a guy who strikes out a lot of guys thrown in the mix. And while Justin Steele and Hayden Wesneski miss a few more bats, they aren’t really strikeout guys the way, say, a Carlos Rodón is (aside: go sign Rodón, Jed).
To put it another way, the contact heavy approach from the Cubs worked a lot better when Yu Darvish was slotted to throw a game between Kyle Hendricks and Alec Mills.
I also worry about this approach more in 2023 than I did in 2022. We do not know what impact the new shift rules will have, but I imagine that a rotation built on giving up softer contact will also give up more bloop hits than they previously did. I’d look for a lot of those BABIPs that are under .300 to normalize closer to .300 absent other factors. I’m not convinced the Cubs currently have the infield defense necessary to bolster a rotation that is built around contact.
Speaking of batted ball effects, Justin Choi over at FanGraphs had an astute observation about this deal being a positive for Taillon due to the different park effects at Yankee Stadium and Wrigley Field:
What we do know is that going from Yankee Stadium to Wrigley Field is a huge upgrade for a pitcher like Taillon. The overall park factor for each venue, as calculated by Baseball Savant, is similar. But what sets them apart is their home run factor: 113 for Yankee Stadium and 99 for Wrigley Field, on a scale where 100 is average. It doesn’t exactly work like this, but converting a few of the home runs he allowed into outs lowers his ERA by a pretty good amount. Fewer home runs equal fewer runs, which equal lengthier starts. Now, I don’t think we should slap on a major improvement to his projections because of a change of scenery, but the general idea stands. Barring some rotten luck or a notable decline in either stuff or command, he shouldn’t allow as many home runs as he did last season.
Jameson Taillon throws a six-pitch mix that features a four-seam fastball 35.7 percent of the time. He mixes that up with a slider (18.8 percent), a curveball (14.8 percent), a sinker (11.1 percent), a cutter (11.1 percent) and a changeup (8.5 percent). That pitch mix has varied a lot over Taillon’s career, as you can see below:
You probably noticed the big gap in the middle of this chart. That’s when Taillon was recovering from his second Tommy John surgery. It also goes a long way to explaining the erratic pitch mix above. As the New York Times reported, having a second Tommy John surgery caused Taillon to reevaluate the way he pitched:
Taillon, still in recovery, resolved that day to become a new pitcher.
“I kind of had like a coming-to-grips moment where I said, ‘My current set of mechanics and what I’m doing isn’t working,’” he said in a conference call with reporters on Monday. “That’s just the cold, hard truth. I need to change something or else my career is going to be over.”
The Times continued:
The goal of his mechanical renovation was to take pressure off his elbow by using more leg thrust and shortening his arm path. It took time, he said, but he has adopted the new approach and says it not only protects his elbow, but it has also changed — and, perhaps, improved — the action on several of his pitches.
Taillon said that he now had more spin on his fastball and that his cut fastball had evolved into more of a true slider. He has found his sinker to be less effective, but he still relies on a sloping curveball, having discovered a comfortable grip on his evolving changeup, which gives him the potential for at least five pitches.
That revamped approach was successful with the Yankees over the last two seasons, which saw Taillon throw 144⅓ innings in 2021 and 177⅓ innings in 2022. Either of those innings totals would have exceeded the 138⅔ innings Marcus Stroman led the team with in 2022.
Taillon made 61 starts for the Yankees over the last two seasons. He should give the Cubs a reliable source of quality innings for the next four years if he is able to stay healthy. That said, I hope this move is supplemented by another top of the rotation arm. Taillon has generally been the third or fourth best starter in whatever rotation he’s been a part of. Currently, the Cubs have a slew of potential number three (high upside number two) starters on their 40-man roster. I am still waiting for them to add an ace.