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Taillon hopes development of slider takes him to next level

Jerry DiPaola
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Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Jameson Taillon delivers during the first inning against the Phillies Saturday, July 7, 2018, at PNC Park.

Clint Hurdle wasn’t sure what was more powerful: the slider Jameson Taillon wanted to add to his arsenal or his determination to use it.

But, in Hurdle’s eyes, the mindset as much as the right arm is what makes Taillon one of the top pitchers in the National League.

About a year ago, Taillon wanted to take the next step in his development. He didn’t need to justify the Pittsburgh Pirates taking him second overall — after Bryce Harper and before Manny Machado — in the 2010 draft. After all, he was on his way last season to a career high in victories (14), career low in ERA (3.20) and the first two complete games and shutout of his three-year career.

But he wanted more out of that right arm. The slider was in his “back pocket,” as he described, and it was time to expose it to big-league bats.

So he went to Hurdle and pitching coach Ray Searage with the proposal — and a little speech that underscored his conviction.

“I was expecting a bullet-point presentation,” Hurdle said. “I was expecting the stick to come out, the light.

“(He said) ‘I’m confident. I want to do this. I’m healthy.’ He almost pretty much made up his mind. We could have said, ‘No, son. You’re not going to do that.’ I’m pretty sure we were going to see 12 to 13 sliders, anyway.

“Why fight that fight beforehand? Free him up mentally.”

When Taillon reports to Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla., on Tuesday, with the other pitchers and catchers, the slider is coming with him.

“I didn’t have any time to develop the pitch (last season),” he said. “I just started throwing it. I’m excited for a whole offseason and spring training of throwing it.”

He started using it in May as a complement to his fastball and curveball, and results were good. His ERA after June 1 was 2.63, with better control and the same strikeout rate (8.4 per nine innings).

“With that pitch, I can take a big step forward. I’m still learning how to use it, incorporate it,” he said. “I literally threw it in catch twice, bullpen once and ‘Let’s see how it goes in a game.’

“I was changing as I went, manipulating as I went.”

It didn’t take long for Taillon to feel comfortable with the slider. He said he threw it with a “fastball mentality,” indicating he planned from the outset to make it work.

“Most major league guys would take years to develop a pitch,” he said. “I tried one grip. It didn’t work. I tried a second one. It worked.

“I stuck with it. I just started throwing it. You don’t know how it’s going to be until you throw it out in a game.”

Taillon said he threw a slider “a little bit” at Woodlands (Texas) High School, where he struck out 114 batters in 62 innings during his senior season of 2010.

“Not the same exact pitch,” he said. “I got in the minor leagues, focusing on fastball command. My curveball got pretty dang good. I kind of just forgot about (the slider) and threw it in the back pocket.”

Meanwhile, Taillon had plenty on his mind, besides the slider, as he moved through the minor leagues.

He lost 2014 and ‘15 to Tommy John and sports hernia surgeries but arrived in Pittsburgh to stay midway through the ‘16 season.

Then, he missed a month in 2017 while undergoing surgery for testicular cancer before he enjoyed an injury-free season last year.

He was 8-7, with a 4.44 ERA and 1.48 WHIP, in ’17, but he wanted more out of that arm.

“The league was kind of punching back on me, not chasing my curveball as much,” he said. “I thought it was a good time to break it back out.”

He carried it through his first full season in the majors last year, becoming one of only 23 MLB pitchers to work 191 innings. His 3.20 ERA was 11th among those pitchers.

Taillon led the team with 32 starts and recorded two of Pirates’ three complete games. Trevor Williams had the other.

In Taillon’s first career shutout, he threw a one-hitter April 8 at the Cincinnati Reds. He also gutted out a 10-2 complete-game victory Aug. 27 in Colorado, allowing 10 hits but only one walk in one of the most hitter-friendly parks in the majors.

“I take pride in going deep into games,” he said.

It may not sound like much, but Taillon pitched to the end of the season, making his last start Sept. 29.

“I was glad I got to finish out my season,” he said. “I’m glad they let me do that. I went wire-to-wire for the first time. It was something I was pretty proud of. When I got home, I got to reflect on that.

“I don’t think there’s any reason I can’t continue that trend.”

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry at [email protected] or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.