The acquisition of Michael A. Taylor prior to the 2021 season was a bit of a head-scratcher to many Royals fans at the time.
After all, Taylor had been regulated to a fourth outfielder role in 2019 and 2020 with the Nationals, as he played in only 53 and 38 games, respectively. This was coming off seasons in 2017 and 2018 in which he played 118 and 134 games, respectively. While injuries took a toll on Taylor in his last two seasons in DC, he also lost time to the Nationals’ top prospect, Victor Robles, who took over his duties as Washington’s regular centerfielder.
Taylor was already 30 years old when he made his way to Kansas City, which isn’t exactly a great place to be age-wise in Major League Baseball. Despite still possessing above-average athleticism and tools, many Royals fans wondered why Dayton Moore would tab Taylor to be the Royals’ everyday centerfielder, especially when there were more high-profile options such as Jackie Bradley, Jr. and Robbie Grossman available in free agency.
Last season was not a great year for Taylor offensively, as he only posted a 77 wRC+ and a .244/.297/.356 slash over 528 plate appearances. While he did hit 12 home runs, steal 14 bases, and improved in most metrics from his final season in Washington, most of Taylor’s value came on the defensive end.
Safe to say, defensively, Taylor has been the best centerfielder in Royals history since Lorenzo Cain left after the 2017 season.
According to Fangraphs, Taylor was worth 16.1 runs above average on a Def rating end. He also generated a UZR of 13.3, a DRS of 19, and an OAA of 15. In every single metric, Taylor rated as one of the best defensive outfielders in baseball in 2021, and it’s not a surprise that his performance netted him a Gold Glove award in 2021.
The narrative on Taylor in 2021 was “he’s got an amazing glove, but does he hit enough to be an everyday player”?
The Royals believed that he could in 2022, as evidenced by Moore and JJ Picollo inking Taylor to a modest two-year extension before the 2021 season even concluded (which is pretty rare).
Taylor was worth 2.0 fWAR a season ago, which would equate to about $15.7 million in value, according to Fangraphs. Hence, the extension showed that the Royals not only believed he could be a regular starting outfielder in 2022 and 2023, but he could surpass his contractual value as well (his deal only totaled $9 million over the two-year span).
As of Saturday, July 9th, Taylor is producing an fWAR of 1.0, which would equate to about $7.8 million, according to Fangraphs. He has already been worth his current extension, even if his season ended today.
But what has made Taylor’s 2022 so interesting is how he’s producing value, as it looks a lot different from his Royals debut last year.
The 31-year-old outfielder is actually performing better offensively than defensively this year, which is a surprise to most Royals fans who didn’t think Taylor was worth playing every day due to his lack of punch on the hitting end in 2021.
And how he’s gotten to this point has made him not only one of the Royals’ most fascinating hitting projects this year but also one of the more valued outfielders on the trade market currently.
Taylor’s Change in Approach at the Plate
First off, Taylor’s numbers, as of Saturday, are pretty eye-popping. He is currently producing a slash of .270/.348/.390 with a wRC+ of 112 in 228 plate appearances this season. He has also hit five home runs, scored 26 runs, and drove in 24 RBI while primarily hitting at the bottom of the order.
In addition, Taylor also came through in the clutch in last night’s victory over the Cleveland Guardians, as he hit an opposite-field single which won the game in the bottom of the ninth.
Now, at a surface level, Taylor doesn’t seem like a much different hitter from his 2021 self, especially if one takes an eye at his percentile rankings via Baseball Savant.
Taylor has seen declines from 2021 in the categories of average exit velocity (2.6 percent), hard-hit rate (8.4 percent), as well as max exit velocity (2.1 percent). His barrel rate is up 0.2 percent, but his barrels per plate appearance (4.4) is the exact same number as a year ago. And though his K rate is down 3.2 percent from a year ago, it’s been trending in the wrong direction as of late, as Royals fans can see in the breakdown chart below:
So, if not much has changed for Taylor from 2021 metrically (with some regression in other categories), then why has Taylor been so much more successful thus far in 2022 at the plate?
BABIP (Batting Average of Balls in Play) explains part of it, as his .345 BABIP is 26 points higher than a year ago.
That being said, there are two more important areas to focus on which are the following: batted ball difference and plate discipline.
In terms of batted ball difference, Taylor is hitting more balls in the air than ever before. His groundball rate is under 40 percent for the first time in his career, and his flyball rate is also the highest it’s ever been as well. Here is a look at his batted ball metrics from 2015 to the current day.
In addition, Taylor is both pulling and going more to the opposite field this season in comparison to a year ago, which has also been an interesting development. If one takes a look at his spray chart from the past couple of years, you will notice that his base hits are more spread out in 2022 as well as less concentrated in the middle of the field.
(Drag the arrow to the right to see 2021; to the left to see 2022).
It’s a bit of a different approach, especially when combined with a lower hard-hit rate from a year ago (which makes me wonder about his batted ball sustainability going forward). Nonetheless, it seems to be producing more batted balls to fall in for base hits, which is a big reason why his BABIP is so much higher than a season ago.
But the biggest development for Taylor is his eye at the plate, which has seen tremendous improvement from a year ago.
Let’s take a look at Taylor’s plate discipline metrics over his career via Fangraphs:
Some interesting trends jump out right off the bat.
First off, Taylor is swinging WAY less this season in comparison to a year ago. His swing rate is down 3.3 percent, which would be the fourth-lowest swing rate of his career if the season ended today. Taylor was embodying a more judicious approach at the plate in his last two years of Washington but seemed to change in 2021 when he moved to a more swing-happy Royals organization.
However, the Royals had Terry Bradshaw as the hitting coach a year ago. That’s different now, as Alec Zumwalt took over hitting coach duties after Bradshaw’s firing in May.
While much has been made of Zumwalt’s impact on the young hitters, it’s obvious that Zumwalt’s presence has also had a positive effect on Taylor, as he is helping him be a more patient hitter, which is producing results.
Taylor is swinging at fewer pitches outside the strike zone (3.7 percent) and whiffing less overall (2 percent). He also has boosted his contact rate by 2.3 percent from a year ago, which includes a 5.2 percent jump in contact on pitches INSIDE the strike zone. In fact, his 85.8 percent Z-contact (contact inside the zone) percentage would be a career-high if the season ended today and his highest rate since his rookie year in 2014.
As a result, he is not only getting better pitches to hit (which explains his improvement in batting average), but he is also getting on base via the walk more than ever before. His 10.5 percent walk rate, as of Saturday, would be a career-high and is three percent higher than his previous career-high walk rate (which occurred in 2018).
Now, no Royals fan will be confusing Taylor for Cain anytime soon, but Taylor has at least demonstrated that he can be a productive player offensively in the Royals lineup. A lot of that credit should be given to Zumwalt and the Royals coaching staff for tapping into Taylor’s talents and making him a better overall player, even if it has come at the expense of hard-hit batted balls.
Is Taylor’s Time in Kansas City Coming to an End?
As expected for a club that is 31-51, the Royals are expected to be players on the trade market this month. While Andrew Benintendi is the more coveted player, Taylor’s name has been thrown out as a possibility for opposing teams, especially those who need help defensively in the outfield.
What’s interesting to see is that Taylor hasn’t quite been as effective defensively this year in comparison to a year ago. His Def rating is 0.6 runs below average, according to Fangraphs, and his OAA is more pedestrian at one.
When looking at his OAA visuals from 2021 and 2022, he hasn’t been quite as sure-handed in centerfield this year, as evidenced by more “light blue” this year in comparison to “dark red” dots in 2022. (Scroll left for 2021 and right for 2022).
Nonetheless, his DRS is a little more palatable at seven this year, and he’ll likely be a double-digit DRS outfielder by season’s end. Even in the midst of some regression, his defense is his biggest strength as a player, and the uptick in patience at the plate and batting average production makes him an ideal centerfielder for a contending team who could fit in the No. 8 or No. 9 spot in the batting order.
Of course, will Picollo and Moore pull the trigger on such a move?
It’s tough to say, though it does appear that Picollo is more open to making trades than Moore, based on some recent conversations Picollo has had with the media lately.
It’s likely that the Royals will strongly entertain a move with Taylor, even with a year remaining on his deal (and at a reasonable amount). However, a couple of things need to happen for a Taylor trade to be a reality: the Royals have to get the right package (i.e. multiple prospects) and Kyle Isbel needs to step up offensively.
Isbel has demonstrated that he can handle the defensive load in centerfield, as he leads the Royals in OAA at five. On the other hand, he is only posting a wRC+ of 58 and his BB/K ratio is 0.15, which is the second-worst mark of Royals hitters with 10 or more plate appearances this year, according to Fangraphs (only Saly is worse with a 0.14 mark). For a Taylor trade to be expedited, Isbel has to prove that he can handle the demands of playing every day in centerfield for the Royals on a defensive AND offensive end, and right now Isbel has only satisfied one of those requirements.
But there still is a month left before the August 2nd deadline, so Isbel has some time to prove himself, though the chances are getting fewer, especially with Edward Olivares back off the IL.
Regardless of whether Taylor stays in Kansas City or not, the fact of the matter is that Taylor has been a tremendous success story with the Royals. He has given the club what they have needed in centerfield on both an offensive and defensive end, which was lacking from 2018 to 2020. I am not sure if Taylor will keep up this pace offensively, but I know his defense will get better, especially since it seems like he’s knocking off some rust from some nagging issues at the beginning of the year.
There is a lot to criticize when it comes to this Royals team. And there certainly needs to be a lot of changes made, on a player, coaching, and even front office end, to help turn things around in the long term.
But the work the Royals have done with Taylor, seeing him go from a bench player in Washington to a Gold Glove-winning and surprisingly productive offensive outfielder in Kansas City the past two years, is something to celebrate, even in a tough season like this one.
Photo Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports