Since the Yankees traded for Jameson Taillon in January, the reviews on their new starting pitcher have largely been as follows: He looks healthy and improved after nearly two years away with injuries; his cheerful personality has been a welcome addition to the team; and he sure knows how to whip up some great coffee.
“Sometimes I don’t let him go out and do what he’s got to do until, if I need a cup of coffee, he brews it right in his locker,” Manager Aaron Boone said on Wednesday with a grin.
The Yankees, of course, didn’t send four prospects to the Pittsburgh Pirates in exchange for Taillon simply for a caffeine boost. Their starting rotation, after the departures of Masahiro Tanaka and James Paxton, was painfully thin. So the Yankees made the potentially high-reward gamble of acquiring two pitchers — Corey Kluber, a two-time Cy Young Award winner, and Taillon, a former second overall draft pick — who had combined to throw one inning since May 1, 2019, because of injuries.
That date, until his start on Wednesday, was the last time Taillon, 29, had thrown a pitch in a major league game, a span of 707 days. And even though the Yankees (3-3) lost to the Baltimore Orioles, 4-3, in 11 innings, it was a significant milestone for Taillon, whose body has endured so much throughout his career.
“This is going to sound cheesy, but I’ll never take a day in a big-league uniform for granted, that’s for sure,” Taillon said in a video call with reporters after Wednesday’s game. “I was super happy to be out there.”
The reason for Taillon’s most recent absence was Tommy John surgery, the elbow ligament replacement procedure that has become so common in baseball. Although the recovery for the surgery is generally 12 to 15 months, there are plenty of success stories, including the two-time Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom; the 2019 World Series most valuable player, Stephen Strasburg; and the Hall of Famer John Smoltz. But this was Taillon’s second Tommy John surgery — his first came in 2014 — and the odds are bleaker when a pitcher’s throwing elbow is repaired twice.
“I’m well aware of what the history for two-time Tommy John guys is,” said Taillon, who missed the 2015 season because of sports hernia surgery and who overcame testicular cancer in 2017. “There are some guys in the big leagues who’ve done it, but I want to be one of the positive statistics.”
After his second elbow surgery, Taillon feared his career could be over if he didn’t find a solution. So with the help of the Florida Baseball Ranch, a facility in Lakeland, Fla., that uses diagnostics to improve health and performance, Taillon overhauled the way he threw a baseball. He learned to use his legs more, and his right arm takes a shorter path.
He also adapted his pitching philosophy to a more contemporary one. To combat the prevalent uppercut swings of today, more pitchers throw four-seam fastballs up in the strike zone. Taillon’s close friend and former Pirates teammate Gerrit Cole successfully pulled off this evolution when he was traded to the Houston Astros before the 2018 season.
With some help from the Astros’ analytics-driven front office, Cole ditched the two-seam, sinking fastball he used more often in Pittsburgh. He soon became one of baseball’s elite pitchers and signed a nine-year, $324 million deal with the Yankees before the 2020 season.
Much as he did in spring training, Taillon looked like a different pitcher on Wednesday. It felt, he admitted, almost like the beginning of a new career. He didn’t throw any two-seam fastballs to the Orioles. He noticed batters flailing at his 94-mile-per-hour fastballs, whereas a few years ago, a 97 m.p.h. sinker would be smacked around.
“His fastball was pretty alive,” Yankees second baseman D.J. LeMahieu said.
One of the things Taillon said he had missed most, in a weird way, was being mad at himself during a competition. The reason: He allowed two solo home runs on Wednesday. Still, he struck out seven batters over four and two-thirds innings. Boone held Taillon to 74 pitches, and had scheduled his debut for the Yankees’ sixth game of the season because the team is easing him back after being away for so long.
“He’s going to help us a lot,” said catcher Gary Sanchez, who has overseen a pitching staff that led the major leagues with a 1.74 earned run average entering Thursday’s games.
After exiting Wednesday’s game, Taillon walked through the dugout high-fiving his teammates, but he cracked a smile when he saw Cole. Even after Cole was traded to the Astros, they were in touch frequently. As Pirates spring training roommates, they used to spend hours talking about baseball and pitching, sometimes over wine chosen by Cole and also a “five-star” meal cooked by him, Taillon said. And when the Yankees were contemplating a trade for Taillon over the winter, Cole offered a glowing review of his former teammate to his bosses upon request.
“He helped me a lot with my mechanics; I was sending him videos, and he kept me really encouraged,” Taillon said.“Everyone understands what I’ve been through, but he really understands because he’s known me for a long time. So he just made a comment about ‘welcome back’ and ‘first of many.’”
On Friday, the Yankees will send Kluber, Taillon’s rotation mate, to the mound against the Tampa Bay Rays, who stopped them from winning the American League East title last year and from advancing past the second round of the playoffs. In his first start of the season, Kluber allowed one earned run, walked three and struck out five over four innings against the Toronto Blue Jays.
The Yankees, though, have Kluber, who turns 35 on Saturday, signed to an $11 million contract for only one year. Taillon is under team control for two.
Although Taillon has spent more time rehabilitating than pitching since he was drafted in 2010, he believes better days are ahead. He said he has come to grips with the fact that his dreams coming out of high school, such as winning 20 games for 15 consecutive major league seasons, may not come true. On Wednesday, he was simply happy to be back on the mound, with his pal Cole nearby, and on a team that is among the favorites to win a World Series title.
And the Yankees are thrilled to have Taillon’s coffee expertise around during the 162-game regular season. Taillon, who used to maintain a coffee blog and has his own blend, loves sharing his pour-over coffee with his new teammates.
“He’s a coffee aficionado,” Boone said this month.