Who: Chris Taylor
Where he is now: Seattle Mariners (MLB)
The University of Virginia sends a lot of baseball players to the pros. And recently, many of them have been ending up in the Mariners organization. Over the past five years, Seattle has selected five Cavaliers in the draft. First was right-handed pitcher Andrew Carraway, a 12th-round pick in the 2009 draft. He was followed in 2011 by a trio of UVA standouts. Headlining the group was second-overall pick Danny Hultzen, the stud left-handed starter that projected as a mainstay in the M’s rotation.
But the first Cav to successfully make the jump from collegiate to big league ball is neither the most seasoned of the group, nor the most hyped. Carraway is currently throwing for Tacoma, while Hultzen continues to deal with a really, really fucked up shoulder.
Nope, the first UVA draft pick to get the call is actually the youngest of the five, the one selected a year after Hultzen & Co. If the title of the post didn’t give away the name I’m referring to, then watching Seattle’s last few games certainly has. He’s the guy who’s been making his case for the starting shortstop job. His name is Chris Taylor.
Taylor was selected in the 2012 draft, the third pick of the fifth round. He was, above all, taken for his defense. There’s split opinion on just exactly how good he could be in the field, though. Some scouts see a Gold Glove-recipient in waiting, which Lookout Landing‘s Scott Weber attested to when he recently said he once heard Taylor compared to Brendan Ryan. Then again, just five days ago, Baseball Prospectus wrote, “[Taylor] isn’t likely to emerge as a…Gold Glove level defender.” But while we may not yet know his defensive ceiling, we do have an idea of Taylor’s skill set at short, and can reasonably predict what his baseline production in the field will be. Neither his range nor arm strength are standout tools, but the consensus is that each is sufficient enough to keep Taylor at shortstop. Reports praise his defensive polish, however. Which is to say, Taylor is sure-handed and doesn’t make many errors on routine grounders (ahem, Brad Miller). The 23-year-old is also pretty damn fast (more on this later). Adding up these parts, Taylor is most likely an immediate defensive upgrade at shortstop, and will almost certainly be better than Miller down the road.
What no one really expected Taylor to do, though, was hit. Coming out of Charlottesville, he was seen as a glove-first, if not glove-only, shortstop. But perhaps the M’s were savvy to something in Taylor’s hitting abilities that other teams weren’t. Because as he emerges on the major league scene, it’s actually Taylor’s offense that’s seen as the most glimmering beacon of hope.
Upon his 2012 arrival, Taylor proceeded to crush the ball, and hasn’t really let up since. His first stop was in Everett (A-), where he recorded a .904 OPS across 165 plate appearances, good for a wRC+ of 161. He made the jump to High Desert (A+) to start 2013, where he spent the first-half of his first full season, before being promoted to Jackson (AA). In each place, Taylor raked. He collected a .950 OPS in 319 PA with the Mavericks, followed by .774 mark in as many PA with the Generals. His production at the plate earned him the Mariners 2013 Minor League Player of the Year Award.
To determine how good a major league hitter Taylor might be, though, we can’t just consider past his results. We have to look at the underlying offensive skills. Taylor, as you’ll read in almost any scouting report, doesn’t have home run-power, but regularly drives balls into the gaps. During his half-season in A+ last year, he ranked top-three in the league in total bases, despite hitting only seven home runs. This year, with the Rainiers, he had 34 extra-base hits in just 302 at-bats. He doesn’t often hit the ball over the wall, but does frequently find outfield grass, and his speed allows him to turn those balls into a lot of doubles and triples.
But, like the last guy I did a primer on, Taylor’s biggest offensive asset is his on-base ability. He walks a lot. From 2012-2013, his BB% sat around 13% at all three levels. And though that number dropped slightly this year with his promotion to AAA, Taylor was still walking on more than 10% of his at-bats. The shortstop may actually be even better than Choi at getting on base, as his wheels allow him to consistently register a high BABIP.
And, yeah, let’s talk about that speed. Marc over at U.S.S. Mariner labeled it “best-in-the-system good.” As that post also notes, Taylor collected nearly 70 stolen bases during his two-plus years in the minors, swiping them at an 86% success rate. He was drafted for his glove, and the bat has been all the talk since, but Taylor’s speed may be his best ability.
There are flaws in his game, of course. He strikes out more than you’d like to see, having K’d in about 20% of his AB the last two seasons in the minors. And his OBP has often been propped up by an unsustainably high BABIP.
That said, Taylor also appears to have himself covered where many young players don’t. Though his BABIP will certainly drop in the majors (it was .412 in Tacoma this year), it might not to the extent you’d expect. As mentioned, Taylor’s speed means high BABIPs are a legitimate asset of his, and this will help compensate for the frequent strikeouts. He’s also quite good at hitting same-handed pitching and using the opposite field. He actually hit right-handed pitchers better than lefties in AAA, and more of his base-knocks landed in right field than any other part of the diamond. Both those things will probably change as Taylor moves to the majors, but the mere fact he could do them in Tacoma shows his approach at the plate is more refined than you’d expect of someone his age.
So, what do we have in Mr. Chris Taylor, both this year and in those to come? The Steamer projection system predicts he and Miller will be roughly equivalent hitters the rest of the season. It also says Miller will be the more valuable fielder and baserunner. But, then again, that’s probably because it’s assuming he’ll get majority of the playing time, because there’s really no question that Taylor is better in the field and on the base paths. Miller’s advantage over Taylor is with the lumber, and if the former Clemson Tiger can return to the form we saw early this season and late last, he’ll be the M’s shortstop of that future. That’s a big “if,” though, and should it go unfulfilled, I think Taylor just might turn out to be the better player.
Author’s note: It seems like I’ve given out a lot of apologies on this blog in the short time it’s been around. But I’m of the opinion that it’s better to do so than not, and potentially give off the vibe that we don’t care about our unfulfilled promises. This time, I’d like to say sorry for not keeping up with the Player Primer series as I originally hoped, and will attempt to from now on. Two new players deserving of primers joined the M’s since I did my initial post on Ji-man Choi: catcher Jesus Sucre, who was called up from AAA, and designated hitter Kendrys Morales, who was acquired via trade from Minnesota. Here’s a quick summary of both. Sucre is supposed to be really good when behind the plate with a mitt and mask, and really bad when aside it with a bat. Morales is the guy we had last year; he was pretty good then, and looks to be pretty damn miserable now.