Dodgers' unsung hero overhauled his approach in offseason, and it's paying dividends
By Joe Trezza
When the Dodgers finally steer their ship out of the rocks and hit dry land come October -- and they will make the playoffs, despite this month's dramatics -- it's difficult to imagine them making much noise without Chris Taylor. Their high-socked, higher-energy leadoff hitter ambushed the lineup in April and nose-dove into so many rallies since, it's worth considering the reality of an autumn ago.
Taylor, 27, was new to the organization last September, a versatile curiosity acquired to little fanfare for former first-rounder Zach Lee. Armed with several gloves and a motor on hyperdrive, Taylor profiled an intriguing project. But he was used as little more than a spare part as Los Angeles wrapped up its fourth consecutive National League West crown, receiving just three at-bats in September. When the Dodgers packed up for the postseason, Taylor was sent to their Spring Training facility in Arizona, left behind to work for a moment that might never come.
Which is why the club could not have anticipated how indispensible Taylor has become. Flash forward a year, and Los Angeles has used 25 position players on its way to what will be another division crown. Only Corey Seager has logged more plate appearances than Taylor. Only Justin Turner has both reached base and slugged at a higher rate. Taylor didn't make the team out of Spring Training, but he has spent the season producing on a pace similar to reigning NL MVP Award winner Kris Bryant, while bringing more speed (16 stolen bases, 24 infield hits) and versatility (time at five positions).
If there is an unsung hero on this team of big-personality, big-paycheck stars, it's Taylor, a mild-mannered super-utility guy who plays like he knows what it's like to get a second chance. It stands to reason this Chris Taylor could have helped the Dodgers last October.
If he'd existed.
But ask Taylor, ask his teammates, ask his manager, ask scouts, and a consensus forms. He isn't the same as he was a year ago. That's not hyperbole stemming from the numbers on the back of his baseball card, but a conclusion drawn from the mechanical adjustments that spurred them, and in turn turned Taylor, in one offseason, into one of the game's best players.
Look closely and spot the intricacies of the drastic swing overhaul that turned Chris Taylor from sub into one of baseball's best hitters. pic.twitter.com/2ab42Xf9li
Simply put, Taylor is a fundamentally different hitter than he was a year ago, when his line drives sputtered and his long fly balls tended to get caught at the wall. And without going to Arizona, Taylor thinks he'd still be toiling in that middle ground between Major League ready and Minor League regular.
"I wanted to make changes when I got there," Taylor said. "It was my idea."
Taylor spent his nights watching the postseason he was not a part of. He spent his days creating a new swing for himself to replace the one that had, to that point, produced just one home run in 318 career plate appearances. Under the watch of club hitting consultants Craig Wallenbrock and Robert Van Scoyoc, Taylor sought to do what more hitters are doing now than ever before: make their swing more dynamic by making it more complicated.
"I kinda went to the extreme right away and had some pretty big moves," Taylor said. "I've started to realize a lot of guys are having success with bigger moves. As long as you modify them."
Taylor's moves, put together, form a conglomeration of his favorite swings and blend them into one. His front foot leg kick resembles Turner's. His step back, a back-foot motion used to kick-start a swing, comes from the school of Nolan Arenado. A bat waggle cocks Taylor's hands into a hitting position not dissimilar to Mike Trout's.
The result is a load that acts more as a windup, a four-step dance that incorporates feet, knees, elbows, hands and hips, working in unison. Last season, Taylor stepped toward the pitch from a cold stop.
"Last year, it felt like I was swinging harder, but there was no momentum coming from the barrel," Taylor said. "Now, the barrel is constantly in motion, and it gives it time to accelerate. It creates more bat speed."
It's also created one of the most-improved players in the game. Armed with a new swing, Taylor went from one home run to 19 and increased his OPS by 254 points, the fifth-largest upgrade in the Majors. He's gone from afterthought to fringe NL MVP Award candidate.
"I'm not surprised anymore. But early on, did we expect that from Chris? Absolutely not," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. "Hitters are creatures of habit. For him to do an overhaul, says a lot about him betting on himself."
The difference between old Chris Taylor & new Chris Taylor is nuts. All those yellow dots are very good. He doesn't discriminate with them. pic.twitter.com/XUjwo1emdE
Taylor isn't the only player in Los Angeles' clubhouse to finish a season as one player and return as another. And he's not the only player whose mechanical adjustments stemmed from a desire to drive the ball more.
In this sense, Taylor's transformation resembles the one Turner famously pulled off four offseasons ago, when he went from role player to elite hitter after adding a leg kick and uppercut into his swing.
"I know exactly what he went through," Turner said. "He was a good baseball player who was capable of putting together good at-bats but wasn't capable of doing damage. And he goes in the offseason and makes all these adjustments, and it's the same quality at-bats over and over again. But when [he] gets those good pitches now, they're turning into doubles and homers, instead of singles.
"You get this information, and it says this is how you can become one of those productive guys," Turner said. "You take it. It's like getting the answers to a test. I know how awesome it feels to experience the success when you do an overhaul like that. He spent hours and hours in the cage this offseason in an attempt to make it repeatable and understand it enough to really know his own swing."
For every Jose Bautista and Daniel Murphy and Turner, hitters who rode brand-new swings and approaches to rejuvenated careers, there are scores of others unwilling to attempt severe overhauls. And for every hitter embracing the launch-angle data encouraging them to alter their swing, there is another, on the other side of the clubhouse, in quiet quandary. It's not that they refute the data. But why change what got them to the big leagues?
"You don't see it happen quite often," Roberts said of successful swing overhauls. "I think seeing someone [like Turner] who kind of transformed his career showed [Taylor] that it could be done."
Fact is, Taylor never had trouble getting the ball in the air. The difference is, his new swing allows him to hone those air balls toward the most productive end of the spectrum. Out of 202 qualified hitters, Taylor owns the fourth-highest rate of balls hit within Statcast™'s line-drive zone between 10 and 25 degrees -- a zone in which he's batting .692 and slugging 1.165 for the year. Better yet, Taylor has clubbed 16 barrels -- or the most productive batted ball a hitter can produce -- since the All-Star break, which ranks as the seventh most in the NL in that span. Not all air balls are created equal. Taylor isn't just hitting fly balls. He's hitting good fly balls, long line drives. That distinction is making all the difference.
"A lot of those balls that are getting over the fence or for extra-base hits this year, I'd have that same feeling last year, and they'd be caught at the wall or with the outfielder going back," Taylor said. "It's just the bat speed from all those adjustments I made. I was all in."
Joe Trezza is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @joetrezz. Matt Kelly and Jason Bernard added research to this report. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.