In the final weekend of May, the Harrisburg Senators were in Akron for a three-game series. Nationals outfield prospect Michael A. Taylor drilled a ball to center field, 400 feet away, so hard and so high that it hit the top of the 50-foot wall that stretches between left-center and right-center. “It would have been 450 feet if the wall wasn’t there,” Harrisburg hitting coach Mark Harris said.
In the next at-bat, the pitcher threw Taylor a slider, a pitch that in the past likely would have made the right-handed hitter drop his back knee, produce a long swing and pop up. Instead, after a tweaked approach at the plate, Taylor recognized it was a hard breaking ball, planted his foot, stood tall in the batter’s box and whacked a line drive to right field for a hit. A few nights later, Taylor had two RBI singles off sliders.
In the dugout, Harris said he thought to himself, “If this continues, that’s a big league center fielder for 15 years. He’s the best center fielder I’ve ever seen defensively.”
The Nationals, who have long admired Taylor’s defensive prowess, had been waiting for his bat to improve. And through two months at Class AA, the 6-foot-3, 210-pound Taylor has been an offensive force. Through 59 games, the 23-year-old is hitting .323/.409/.595 with an Eastern League-leading 1.005 OPS. His 15 home runs rank second in the league, his 46 RBI are third and his 45 runs are fourth. The 2009 sixth-round pick has also stolen 17 bases in 20 attempts.
“From seeing him over the years, he’s always had really good stretches, whether it was a week or 10 days,” said Harrisburg Manager Brian Daubach, who has managed Taylor at Class A Hagerstown in 2011 and Class A Potomac last year. “Now he’s getting the consistent hitting position and being ready to hit on time every pitch and getting a better chance of pitch recognition. He’s laying off a lot of tough pitches and doing some damage with balls in the zone.”
Taylor’s biggest changes have been in his pre-swing positioning and approach. Harris likes to say that Taylor got himself out last year; he hit .263/.340/.426 with 10 home runs and 87 RBI but with 131 strikeouts in 133 games. According to Harris, Taylor would take long strides as he swung, his hands would travel too much as he cocked back before swinging, his balance and timing were off at times. With two strikes, Taylor would chase pitches. All of that has improved.
“I had a lot of hand movement in my load and kind of the takeaway, and a bigger stride than I have now,” Taylor said. “So just trying to simplify things and trying to tighten it up and it’s made it easier.”
Harris will throw soft toss to Taylor before games, known as flips, and Taylor stays inside of every single ball on his swings, no matter if the balls are inside or outside. His body is simply in a better position to hit than a year ago, when he would be late, rush his swing and his front shoulder would fly out of position, Harris said. He said Taylor would get away with that in the past because he is such a good athlete.
According to Harris, Taylor’s reaction time — from where the bat rests to making contact with the ball — is so fast that it rivals Anthony Rendon’s famously quick bat speed. “It’s pretty special and it’s pretty different,” Harris said. Nationals officials have long been impressed with Taylor’s ability to hit the ball hard, and this season it has only continued. He doesn’t have may bloop hits, they said.
“You’ve got that talent and the swing that’s coming around and that consistency of not chasing balls early in the count,” Harris said. “Getting into hitter’s counts and taking good quality swings in the count. He’s got more hits up the middle already that he had all of last year. You look at the last month or month and a half the strikeouts have gone down.”
It is impressive that Taylor has managed to put up big numbers despite striking out 82 times, about 37 percent of his at-bats. He has made a concerted effort to cut down on his strikeouts. In 84 April at-bats, he struck out 39 times. In 107 May at-bats, he trimmed the number to 33. If Taylor can trim his strikeout numbers — the major league average strikeout rate now, for example, is nearly 21 percent — then his production could even more impressive.
Daubach said that Taylor’s season at Class A Potomac last year was the best all-around defensive performance by any center fielder he’s ever seen at any level, and he played parts of eight seasons in the majors leagues. In spring training, Nationals Manager Matt Williams rated him as an 80 defender on the 20 to 80 scouting scale. A National League scout said there was no better defensive center fielder on earth.
“He can get virtually every ball and has an arm,” Daubach said. “Being an infielder previously, he charges the ball so well and gets right of it very quickly, a lot quicker than most.”
Now that Taylor’s bat is catching up to his defense, he is likely on a fast track to the major leagues. The Nationals have a glut of outfielders — Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth, Denard Span and now Ryan Zimmerman — along with prospects such as Brian Goodwin, Destin Hood and Steven Souza Jr., who is tearing up Class AAA at Syracuse. Taylor is making a case, at least now, perhaps for a September call-up. He was named the Eastern League player of the month in May.
“I’ve been really trying to focus on staying consistent,” he said. “The results and what happens after that I really can’t control but I’ve been blessed to have a good season. I’m very thankful for that. I’m trying to take care of the small things and everything past that is out of my control.”
>>> Another Harrisburg player has also impressed this season: left-handed reliever Matt Grace, who hasn’t received much attention for his dominant season. Grace, an eighth-round pick out of UCLA in 2010, was converted from a starter to a reliever at Class A Potomac in 2013 and has taken off. He posted a 3.53 ERA across Potomac and Harrisburg last season. This year, he has a 1.07 ERA over 33 2/3 innings over 21 games. He has held left-handed batters to a .149 average. He throws a standout sinking fastball that generally sits around 91 mph.
>>> A.J. Cole, the Nationals’ No. 2 pitching prospect, returned to the mound on June 7 and allowed only two hits and struck out seven over five scoreless innings. Harrisburg skipped Cole’s previous start in the rotation, giving him 10 days of rest in between starts, because of arm fatigue. Daubach said there was no alarm and no tests were performed. Cole’s fastball was clocked at 96 mph in the June 7 start. He has a 2.30 ERA over 11 starts.
>>> Left-handed prospect Felipe Rivero, who the Nationals acquired as part of the Jose Lobaton trade, has been on the disabled list since early May with elbow discomfort. His last start was on May 4 and he has been resting since. Hard-throwing Rivero was struggling this season; he has a 5.04 ERA over six starts.
He also joins a list of Nationals prospects and minor leaguers with elbow issues. Erik Davis, Danny Rosenbaum and Matt Purke have all undergone Tommy John surgery. Harrisburg teammate Sammy Solis, who has already had Tommy John surgery in the past, was recently placed on the disabled list with left elbow discomfort. Solis is resting, too, but his pain has been attributed to a flexor strain in the elbow and not the ulnar lateral collateral ligament.