Michael A. Taylor of the Nationals spent Saturday pounding the bejeezus out of Cincinnati pitchers, to the tune of four hits, a double, two dingers, and four RBI, in a game the Nationals won by 15 runs.
This was something of a coming out party for Taylor, who has been filling in as the everyday centerfielder in Washington since Adam Eaton tore his ACL in late April. This was no Nats fan’s idea of an acceptable solution on April 29, when word came down that Eaton’s injury was a season ender—the Nationals tried Taylor out as their everyday center fielder in 2015, and he filled in sporadically again last season before Trea Turner swooped in and stabilized the top of Washington’s lineup, mercifully relegating Taylor to a part-time role as the team’s fourth or fifth outfielder.
Taylor has never really worked out as an everyday player. In 2015, in 511 plate appearances, Taylor—a big, strong, fast kid who might at first glance strike you as a rare athletic specimen, until you noticed his oddly stiff and angular way of moving around—managed a .229/.282/.358 line, with 158 strikeouts against 108 hits. He was 24 years old and playing his first extended time in the majors, but that’s at least a large enough sample to know he’d need to fine tune some things in order to hit like a real MLB outfielder.
The sample got bigger, and bleaker, in 2016. With Ben Revere, Washington’s first-choice centerfielder, struggling with injuries and complete, comprehensive ineffectiveness as a baseball player, Taylor turned another 237 plate appearances into another dismal .231/.278/.376 season, and continued to rack up a strikeout and a half for every base hit. Trea Turner joined the team in early June, and played the season out of position in order to send Washington’s gruesome centerfield duo to the bench, where they absolutely belonged.
Here’s a funny thing about Michael A. Taylor, and I’m sure he’s not the first player about whom this can be said: he has a history of lighting up major league pitchers during spring training. He hit .323 in 21 spring training games in 2015. He hit .453 in 20 spring training games in 2016. He hit .315 in 23 games this past spring. The Nationals started bringing Taylor to spring training because he’s been a productive hitter in the minors; they’ve kept him on the big league club after spring training because he’s rampaged through the Grapefruit League like Attila the Hun, except playing baseball in Florida.
But the smooth aggression and breezy success of the Grapefruit League never came close to translating. Taylor started this season behind Eaton, and nothing he did in the first month and a half of the season suggested he would ever figure it out as a major league hitter: In 64 plate appearances before May 10, Taylor hit .220/.226/.305 with 24 Ks, exactly the opposite of the production you’re looking for in a guy who’s suddenly replacing the team’s big free agent outfielder and leadoff man. Now the everyday centerfielder, Dusty Baker had Taylor buried at the bottom of the lineup, and pitchers were burning him down, and Washington’s once fearsome lineup had a big old hole in it.
Until it didn’t! Taylor’s turnaround started abruptly on May 10, with a 2-for-4 outing featuring his first dinger of the season. The big day was also the start of a welcome seven-game hitting streak, during which Taylor smoked five extra-base hits and made a handful of tasty and well-timed defensive plays, and generally started to look like a by-God major leaguer:
Since May 10 Taylor has hit .295/.322/.589 in 152 plate appearances, smacking 22 extra-base hits and 10 dingers, and has officially stabilized Washington’s outfield and lineup. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what precipitated the turnaround—per FanGraphs, most of Taylor’s plate discipline numbers look about the same as they’ve been in seasons past—but he’s hitting the ball harder and farther than he has before, and having more luck on balls in play. Maybe he just needed to see something go his way, and the confidence from spring trainings past would replace—or unleash!—the coiled frustration of mounting regular season failures. Maybe he’ll turn back into a pumpkin come July. Whatever the case, Taylor’s turnaround reached a new peak with yesterday’s four hit performance, highlighted by a couple strong dingers:
He’s still striking out a ton, but who isn’t? Mostly, it’s fun to watch a guy whose name has become synonymous among Nats fans with rally-killing strikeouts finally shine a little, and collect a few big hits in meaningful spots. Centerfield has been a cursed position for Washington for a few seasons now, and Eaton’s injury is part of that history, but Michael A. Taylor is keeping the ship afloat in the meantime. Now if only Mike Rizzo could build a goddamn bullpen.