With Majors success, Taillon happily sheds prospect label

Righty, drafted 2nd in 2010, has turned in quality starts in 7 of his 9 outings

With Majors success, Taillon happily sheds prospect label

PITTSBURGH -- Jameson Taillon reported to the Pirate City complex for Spring Training knowing this year would be unlike the previous five. He was one step away from Pittsburgh, healthy and ready to pitch.

So when Taillon sat down for his entrance interview with manager Clint Hurdle, general manager Neal Huntington and assistant GM Kyle Stark, he didn't hold anything back.

"I'm sick of being a prospect," Taillon said. "I think you hit a point where it's no longer a compliment. Twenty-four years old, picked where I was picked, I don't want to be a prospect. I want to help out."

Exactly two months into his Major League career, Taillon has accomplished both goals. The No. 2 overall pick in the 2010 Draft officially shed the "prospect" label while putting together a 3.29 ERA over nine starts, displaying a level of polish and poise well beyond his limited Major League experience.

Seven of Taillon's nine outings have been quality starts. He's struck out 43 batters and only walked six, a team-high 7.17 strikeout-to-walk rate. He's pitched six innings in each of his last five starts for a club in need of innings from their rotation.

Taillon's quality start

"I remember my debut like it was literally yesterday," Taillon said. "I just want to keep my head down and keep knocking out starts."

The "top prospect" tag was affixed to Taillon for a while. According to MLBPipeline.com's rankings, Taillon was baseball's ninth-best prospect in 2011, bounced around the Top 50 for four more seasons and ranked 30th in the mid-2016 update.

But after six years of being named among the game's top Minor League players, Taillon surpassed the 50-inning mark in the Majors on Friday and graduated from prospect status and rankings.

"Bittersweet, I guess," he said with a laugh. "My journey here was a little different than a lot of guys. It took me longer than I had originally hoped."

Taillon valued his time in the Minor Leagues, especially the way Triple-A pitching coach Stan Kyles and Pirates pitching coordinator Scott Mitchell helped him prepare for the Majors earlier this season.

"They called it a dress rehearsal," Taillon said.

But he mostly credits his rehab work, the reason he bristles when people say he "lost" two years recovering from Tommy John surgery. Rather than let frustration overwhelm him, he used the delay to his advantage.

Taillon goes six strong

"The throwing program for me changed. It went from something I did to check off a box every day to something you can actually work on, get better at and translate," Taillon said. "Whenever you're not throwing off a mound and not pitching in games, that's the only way I can compete is to get better every day in my throwing program, playing catch in the outfield."

Pitching on back fields in Bradenton, Fla., far away from the bright lights of the big leagues, Taillon focused on playing catch every day in a way that would eventually benefit him on the mound.

Typically, you try to target your partner's chest, a natural spot to receive the ball -- but not an area that translates well to pitching. So Taillon and rehab partner Clay Holmes would aim below the waist and above the knees, keeping track of how often they had to bend down to catch their throws.

"We'd joke around like we need to get shin guards," Taillon said. "It was the first time in my life I didn't want to hit him in the chest. I wanted to focus on angle and getting the ball down."

Taillon strikes out six in win

When Taillon got back on the mound, he immediately noticed he was driving the ball down with much less effort than before, the result of weeks spent targeting Holmes' legs during their flat-ground throwing sessions.

That work has translated to the Majors, too. Taillon has pitched down in the zone to induce ground balls, an ability the Pirates highly value. His 54.8 percent ground-ball rate this season is the best among Pittsburgh's starters or qualified relievers.

"It was easy. It was where my body was taking me," Taillon said. "It was where it belonged. It wasn't a force or an effort to get it there. My mechanics just allowed it to go down with ease."

When the Pirates reassigned Taillon to Minor League camp in late March, they held an exit interview inside their McKechnie Field offices. Taillon said he understood the demotion was coming, but he never wanted to have that conversation again.

And he probably never will.

"I love talking with them in that office, but I'd love to be able to have that meeting and break camp with the team," Taillon said. "I was sick of being sent down, sick of being a prospect. I wanted to be up here."

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter at @adamdberry. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.