Seemingly every season, a couple players throughout Major League Baseball have a breakout year. This is generally code for “not-good player plays like an All-Star because baseball is dumb.” But there’s breakout years, and then there’s Chris Taylor’s 2017 season.
The Dodgers acquired Taylor from the Seattle Mariners in exchange for Zach Lee. It seemed like a classic change of scenery swap. Lee was a failed former top pitching prospect and Taylor topped out as the Mariners’ ninth-best prospect in 2013 according to Baseball America, with the expectation of becoming a capable big league utility guy.
This trade happened in June 2016. Lee made nine starts for Triple-A Tacoma before being waived. He was picked up by the Padres, but was released last August. Taylor had a bit of a different path. He spent a good part of the summer in the majors for the Dodgers in 2016, but didn’t show much with a .207/.258/.362 triple slash in 34 games. Despite a strong Spring Training, Taylor started 2017 at OKC, but he was recalled on April 19 when Logan Forsythe broke his toe. He spent about a month at second base and, when Forsythe returned, Taylor had proven himself too valuable to demote. A Joc Pederson injury opened up center field, where the speedy Taylor took over with plus defense and a shockingly strong bat. Taylor had 568 plate appearances in 140 games last season. He posted a .288/.354/.496 triple slash, good for a 127 wRC+ and .364 wOBA. He finished top-five among qualified center fielders in both of those categories, ahead of new rival Andrew McCutchen and should-be-Dodger Christian Yelich. Taylor’s 4.7 fWAR was fourth among all center fielders, only behind Mike Trout, Charlie Blackmon and Tommy Pham.
So Taylor went from utility depth guy to starting center fielder/leadoff hitter in like two months. The 27-year-old came out of nowhere to become an essential part of a World Series contender. Can he keep it up?
Projections don’t seem to think so. PECOTA projects Taylor for a .260/.329/.409 slash line, good for a 3.0 WARP. ZIPS projects Taylor for a .259/.322/.422 line, 98 wRC+ and .320 wOBA, good for 2.7 zWAR. These projections wouldn’t make him unplayable, but would definitely be a step back from last season. It’s easy to see why both projection systems expect regression out of Taylor. His great year was carried by a .361 BABIP, which was the third-highest among center fielders. He struck out 25 percent of the time (second-highest among center fielders) and walked only 8.8 percent of the time, which is middle-of-the-pack among the 18 qualified center fielders. That nearly 9 percent walk rate is troublesome, as a regression in BABIP could lead to his OBP tanking hard. Taylor’s BABIP is a bit problematic, but might not be completely unsustainable. He’s a well-above-average runner, with the fastest sprint speed on the Dodgers last year as measured by Baseball Savant (28.6 ft/sec). It makes sense, as speedy guys tend to have higher BABIPs. Line drives also have the highest expected BABIP, and Taylor’s 22.6 percent line drive rate was the 27th-highest among all qualified hitters last year. So there’s definitely reason for skepticism.
Regardless, Taylor figures to be the Opening Day center fielder and leadoff hitter for the Dodgers in 2018. His versatility allows for some roster shuffling, but it’s tough to imagine anyone else starting in center right now. If Taylor does regress offensively, his defense might still make him the best center field option on the team. Pederson’s days roaming around center field seem numbered, and while Andrew Toles certainly has the speed for it, he’s coming off an ACL tear and is a bit of an unknown commodity right now. Alex Verdugo could handle center field defensively, but probably still needs some seasoning in the minors. And please, keep your Matt Kemp, center fielder, suggestions to yourself.
So if the Dodgers are going to go deep into the postseason once more, they’ll need that table-setter to step up and prove that 2017 wasn’t a fluke. And while there’s always hope that a breakout is legit, projections are understandably skeptical, and CT3 will have to beat the odds once again.