The most productive outfielder for the Washington Nationals right now is not playing every day. The man with the most well-rounded game in the entire outfield corps is not often a part of the starting lineup anymore. Unfortunately for Michael A. Taylor, he found his swing just when the Nationals started to get healthy, just when Juan Soto emerged as an immovable object, just as Adam Eaton returned to seize the leadoff spot. He is hitting .425 in his past 16 games, but he has not started since Sunday, sitting against three right-handed starters. Given the opportunity to pinch hit early Thursday morning, Taylor started a rally with a single in the bottom of the ninth. It was his only chance to help, and he did so.
“It’s definitely hard. I’ve had a conversation with him and I told him it’s a long season. He’s going to play,” Nationals Manager Dave Martinez said Wednesday. “It just so happens right now we’re facing a guy who’s pretty good against right-handed hitters and we got a lot of good left-handed hitters so I told him just be prepared to play and help us win.”
When Taylor is hitting, he can do as much to help his team as anyone on the roster — which is why the Nationals have given him so many chances to find his way at the plate. And he has. After he hit .223 in April and .183 in May, he is hitting .444 in June, and attributes the jump to restoring his most natural setup before the pitch. Going back to what is most natural allows Taylor to get into the rhythm of his swing without thinking, allowing him to focus on pitch selection. The switch has worked.
He is a Gold Glove-caliber center fielder, tied for second among major league center fielders in defensive runs saved. He entered Wednesday night leading the majors with 21 stolen bases, a stat made more remarkable by the fact that he has reached base 20 fewer times than the two men immediately behind him, Trea Turner and Ender Inciarte.
Taylor has always been an elite base stealer. He stole 51 bases one year for Class A Potomac, displaying the necessary speed and requisite instinct throughout his minor league career. Last season, he reached base 137 times and stole 17 bases. This year, he has reached base 77 times and stolen 21.
Part of the difference, Taylor said, is Martinez’s managerial style. Martinez has given his speediest runners a near-perpetual green light to go when they see fit, and his team leads the National League in stolen bases.
“Our team this year and the way we run the bases is the most aggressive we’ve been,” Taylor said. “It’s definitely freed me up, and Davey has made it really easy on me to go out there and try to get a good jump and trust me in a lot of situations.”
Taylor also trusted his instincts earlier this season when he noticed he wasn’t having the kind of success stealing second that he normally did. He watched video, noticed the last 15 or 20 feet was taking him longer than he wanted. Correcting problems like those isn’t easy. Taylor couldn’t head out to the field and slide over and over; the injury risk is just too great.
“It’s more mental,” Taylor said. “A visual cue. I started thinking about the back of the bag instead of the front of the bag. Things like that.”
The adjustment helped Taylor steal eight bases in 15 June games, and in so doing pass more vaunted speedster Turner for the team and league lead. Turner owns a reputation as one of the fastest players in the game. Taylor is not thought of that way, at least by those who talk about those things outside of clubhouses.
“He’s faster,” said Taylor, who is endlessly diplomatic, but seemed earnest beyond politeness in his answer. “No doubt.”
Taylor’s ability to steal a base and save runs defensively makes him as valuable a late-game replacement as the Nationals have. In past years, Taylor also showed a propensity for late-game power, though his isolated power is down this season, and his home-run-to-fly-ball ratio is well below his career average. Still, Taylor is a streaky hitter who does not just catch fire when everything gets in sync. He explodes, as evidenced by his .666 average in his past eight games.
With one pinch-hit at-bat in three days, Taylor’s timing might suffer. But the alternative is sitting steady Eaton, red-hot Soto, or struggling Harper more regularly than just against right-handed pitching. Martinez cannot exactly do that either. Taylor, who can impact the game in so many ways right now, has to wait for his chances to do so.
“When you come off the bench, you get put in big moments,” Martinez said. “ . . . He knows he has a job to do and he knows he’s going to have an opportunity to play.”
Read more on the Nationals: