What to make of Michael A. Taylor

The Pirates' new center fielder has been as advertised defensively but his struggles at the plate have somewhat flown under the radar.
Apr 11, 2024; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Michael A. Taylor (18) tries to catch home run hit by Philadelphia Phillies third base Alec Bohm (28) (not pictured) during the fourth inning at Citizens Bank Park. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 11, 2024; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Michael A. Taylor (18) tries to catch home run hit by Philadelphia Phillies third base Alec Bohm (28) (not pictured) during the fourth inning at Citizens Bank Park. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports / Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports
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The Pirates signed Michael A. Taylor to a one-year deal during Spring Training to help shore up their outfield. It seemed for most of the offseason that the team's plan, like in 2023, was for Jack Suwinski to be the primary center fielder. Adding a right-handed hitting counterpart with a plus glove made a lot of sense. Safe to say, the results have been mixed.

The appeal to adding a player like Taylor was his track record and steady presence defensively in center field. In that regard, he has delivered and then some - despite his age (he turned 33 just before Opening Day), he's actually playing the best defense of his entire career (and that includes his 2021 Gold Glove campaign). He has already recorded seven Defensive Runs Saved, giving him a full-season pace of 25, which is a career-best.

Statcast also views Taylor's defensive work highly. So far in 2024, he ranks as one of the very best defensive outfielders across the board:

Stat

Total

Rank (qualified OF)

Outs Above Average

6

T-3rd

Runs Prevented

6

T-3rd

Success Rate

97%

T-2nd

Success Rate Added

6%

T-3rd

That's all great. PNC Park boasts a very spacious outfield, and across the entire history of the ballpark (which opened in 2001), the Pirates have seldom, if ever, possessed a center fielder with Taylor's ground-covering and ball-tracking ability. But there are two problems here.

The first - and this isn't Taylor's fault - is that, even with him in the fold, the Pirates' outfield defense has been awful. Putting Taylor in center field allowed the Pirates to flank him with two former center fielders in Jack Suwinski and Bryan Reynolds, both of whom have received positive marks from Statcast as center fielders in the past.

Now, Suwinski and Reynolds are in the fifth and first percentiles in Outs Above Average, respectively. Suwinski has already been demoted to Triple-A Indianapolis, and that's largely independent of his defensive woes. The struggles of the outfield as a whole have already been noted, and despite that article being over a month old, the message still holds up. The Pirates' outfield ranks 29th in MLB in Outs Above Average (yes, they managed to move up a spot).

The other problem is that, while Taylor is performing at a career-best level defensively, he has done the exact opposite at the plate. His slash line currently sits at a paltry .203/.252/.260, with just five extra-base hits (and only one home run) and a first-percentile strikeout rate (36.5%) in 137 plate appearances. And that includes his blazing-hot start to the season.

He began the season on an eight-game hitting streak, during which he hit .480 and slugged .600. In the 38 games since then, he's slashed an odious .133/.189/.174. His .362 OPS during that time is comfortably the worst in the league among players with at least 100 plate appearances (and before you ask, yes, the only other player with a sub-.400 OPS in that span is indeed Rowdy Tellez).

Taylor owns a history of having a little bit of pop in his bat - he hit a career-high 21 home runs in 2023 and hit a 493-foot home run at Coors Field in 2015. He was squeezed on a couple of should-be home runs this season. This ball Taylor hit in Washington on April 4 would have been a home run with neutral wind conditions, and this one in Miami went 406 feet and would have left 18 of the other 29 parks. Even so, both plays resulted in doubles, so there wouldn't have been a drastic change to his season OPS had they both been home runs (32 points, to be exact).

So what should we make of the start of Michael A. Taylor's Pirates tenure?

Taylor's defense in center field in his age-33 season is noteworthy and legitimately impressive. It would be difficult for the Pirates' investment in that kind of play ($4 million on a one-year deal) to be a bad one.

Unfortunately, it's also really difficult to justify giving significant playing time to an aging player who strikes out too much, has seen a decrease in quality and quantity of contact, and overall has been the league's worst hitter for the better part of the last two months.

Derek Shelton and the Pirates might agree with the latter. Taylor has shared an even split of the starts in center field since the team recalled Ji Hwan Bae, and fitting him into the lineup consistently will become even more difficult assuming Jack Suwinski eventually makes his way back up. While Taylor's defense is invaluable, the bat is going to need to come around a little bit.