BRADENTON, Fla. -- Jameson Taillon was playing catch on the agility field behind the Pirates’ clubhouse at LECOM Park last week when pitching coach Oscar Marin and bullpen coach Justin Meccage became enmeshed in conversation. Standing between them, manager Derek Shelton grabbed a glove and stepped in as Taillon’s personal throwing partner.
It was a small gesture, maybe not even something you’d think twice about. But it was another reminder to Taillon that, even though he’s out for the season following his second Tommy John surgery, he’s a priority for the Pirates.
Injured players, especially those facing long-term rehabilitation programs, can sometimes feel ostracized. They work separately from their teammates. The future they’re preparing for isn’t Opening Day. When the team breaks camp, they don’t go anywhere but the Pirate City complex across town.
So before Spring Training began last month, Pirates brass reminded Taillon that his rehab is important to them. Whatever’s best for him, they said, is best for the team.
“I’m not going to be on the field this year, but everything we’re building toward involves me with it. As a rehab guy, that’s really refreshing to hear,” Taillon said. “It gives me a purpose to work. It gives me a purpose to stay engaged with all these guys. Just because I’m not going to be up there doesn’t mean I’m not a part of this. I want to be as involved as possible. It feels good to still be viewed as important.”
This time last year, Taillon was preparing for his first Opening Day start. Now, the 28-year-old is just trying to help however he can. “It’s not like I’m out there with a stopwatch and a fungo trying to be a coach,” he joked, but he’s staying involved. He’ll read scouting reports, watch bullpen sessions, talk to younger pitchers about what they’re working on and serve as a sounding board in his role as Pittsburgh’s representative to the MLB Players Association.
The other day, he circled days on his calendar when he plans to visit the Pirates. He’s an important part of the leadership structure in the clubhouse, something that became apparent when he wasn’t around during the second half of last season, so he plans to join the team for select road series and one longer homestand per month.
“We do feel he’s really important,” Pirates general manager Ben Cherington said. “We want to balance giving him every opportunity to do everything he needs to do in his rehab and really focus on that and kind of just totally engage in that, with also figuring out opportunities to keep him engaged with the team as an important teammate.”
In Spring Training, Taillon can do both. He progressed to playing catch from 105 feet earlier this week and reported no issues with the right elbow that required Tommy John surgery in April 2014 and again last August.
“No news is good news for me right now. Just trucking right along,” Taillon said. “I feel like every time I pick up a ball, I’m truly getting better. Every time I throw, if I look at my video from the last time, it’s better and it gets better. More trust in the elbow. More trust in the new mechanics. The ball’s coming out crisper. Velocity goes up a tick every time. Everything’s just super encouraging.”
When he returns to the rotation in 2021, Taillon will look like a different pitcher. He’s changing his delivery, even while playing catch three times a week, in an effort to clean up his mechanics so that they’re more biomechanically sound. Sitting in the media room at LECOM Park on Tuesday, Taillon stood up to demonstrate.
His first move now is more of a hip hinge than a squat. He strides directly toward his target, not across his body. Where he used to generate velocity by reaching far back, his arm action now looks more like that of a quarterback -- quick, tight, close to his body.
“It became dangerous that my body knew how to throw 95 [mph] even if I wasn’t biomechanically moving properly,” Taillon said. “Something has to take the brunt of the force, and that was my elbow.”
When he returned from his first Tommy John surgery, Taillon altered his mechanics -- but that was designed to enhance his pitching, not ensure his long-term health. Truth be told, he knew he’d have to make these changes eventually. He even considered implementing some after his long-awaited breakthrough season in 2018, when he went 14-10 with a 3.20 ERA in 191 innings over 32 starts.
“But it’s just hard when you’re putting up numbers and you’re starting to tap into your potential,” Taillon said. “Everyone would have thought I was crazy if, after the year I had in 2018, I was like, ‘I’m going to change the way I throw.’ Now, I have the time to revamp everything and make this right.
“This is strictly with health in mind, and with where I’m at, I’ve come to the conclusion that if I’m on the field, I’m going to be good. I just have to be on the field. I’ll figure out a way to sequence my pitches and be good. I just need to be out there for 30 starts a year.”
After he went on the injured list last May, Taillon sought out all the information he could gather. He met with Randy Sullivan at the Florida Baseball Ranch, a facility founded to keep pitchers healthy. He dug deep into his movement patterns with Pirates senior rehab coordinator A.J. Patrick and physical therapist Kevin Fitzgerald. He incorporated advice from strength coach Jim Malone, Marin and Meccage, among others.
It’s all on display when he shows up to work on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. He’ll start in the training room with specialized hip movements, do some cardiovascular work, run through range-of-motion exercises (with a plan designed by Pirates staff, including Patrick and Fitzgerald), throw weighted balls (at the behest of Marin and Meccage) to reinforce his mechanics, throw med balls and connection balls (a tool recommended by Sullivan), warm up, take part in his throwing program and go through a full-body workout.
“I’m trying to use every resource I have in the weight room, in the training room, outside sources, inside sources,” Taillon said. “I’m trying to use everybody to make this work.”
He believes it will work, and he’s seen proof that pitchers can survive a second Tommy John. Cherington set up a phone call between Taillon and Red Sox starter Nathan Eovaldi. Taillon has texted with Cubs right-hander Tyler Chatwood. And he’s in frequent contact with Daniel Hudson, the former Pirates reliever who reemerged to record the final out of last year’s World Series for the Nationals.
Taillon, who lives in Houston in the offseason, was there to see it. He sat in the stands of Minute Maid Park on Oct. 30, phone in hand, recording video of Hudson as he chucked his glove toward the dugout in celebration.
For as much as the Pirates have invested and continue to invest in Taillon, he wants to return the favor someday with a moment like that.
“That was pretty powerful for me to see in person,” Taillon said. “I’m rooting for all of them, obviously, and I want to be another positive statistic -- someone the next kid who unfortunately goes through it can look to for some positive influence.”