Photo: Rick Ulreich/Icon Sportswire

We recently wrote about how the best defensive shortstop in the game, Miguel Rojas, was somehow thriving at a young man’s position while defying the statistical aging curve that brings down most players his age.

The top-performing defensive center fielder over the last 3 seasons is doing the same. He just doesn’t have a home yet for 2024. 

I’m referring to current free agent Michael A. Taylor.  

I imagine it is going to generate a lot of responses of “Best center fielder? What about ___?” (insert Brenton Doyle, John Rojas, Kevin Kiermaier and many other options here).

But it’s Taylor who has the best 3-year track record. Taylor saved 19, 19, and 5 runs the last 3 seasons. He was not in Doyle or Kiermaier’s class last year but he was still good. 

And of particular importance when comparing him to a lot of these other players, Taylor has played more than them. He ranks 4th among center fielders in innings played the last 3 seasons. Kiermaier ranks 10th.

Name Innings DRS
Michael A. Taylor 3,156 43
Kevin Kiermaier 2,358 33
Myles Straw 3,882 27
Daulton Varsho 1,040 21
Brenton Doyle 1,023 19

What I watch when I watch Taylor

At his best, Taylor is a great sprinter who can chase balls down deep in the gaps. When he’s doing this well, he’s a highly valuable defender.

From 2021 to 2023, Taylor caught 323 of 386 balls classified as “deep” in our shallow/medium/deep classification system. Based on historical out probabilities, he was expected to catch 308 of them. 

So over these 3 seasons, he’s +15 plays saved (our version of Outs Above Average) just on deep fly balls (323 plays made minus 308 expected plays made). That was No. 1 in MLB in that time.

The last 3 seasons, Taylor was 6, 9, and 4 plays above average on deep balls. 

But there’s no shame in being +4 in 2023. It’s tied for 10th-best among all center fielders. 

The arm

Outfield assists are important because you get credit both for netting an out and erasing a baserunner. Preventing runners from taking an extra base is too. 

Taylor’s arm was notable to his value in both 2021 and 2022, netting him 5 and 4 Runs Saved, respectively. He dropped to 1 Run Saved in 2023. That happened because his assist total dipped, from 8 assists without a cutoff man in 2021 and 5 in 2022 to 1 in 2023.

Though he dipped to 1 Runs Saved in 2023, there don’t appear to be any red flags with his arm. He averaged 92 MPH on the top 10% of his throws in both 2021 and 2022, 91.5 MPH in 2023. That doesn’t feel like a significant difference. And the percentage of runners 

In fairness to Taylor, there was one factor beyond his control. He played a comparable number of innings in 2022 and 2023, but in 2022 he had 45 more opportunities to deny a baserunner an advance because the 2022 Royals pitching was not great and the 2023 Twins were much better than them. So he didn’t have as many chances to put his arm to use.

What was the difference between Taylor 2021-22 and 2023?

Baseball Savant’s jump numbers indicate that Taylor’s “burst” (the number of feet above average that he was covering at the point in which the ball is in the air from 1.5 to 3 seconds) is down by about a foot from 2021. However, he did improve a little bit in the route-running component of the jump stats. 

Taylor also had a few more miscues and just misses. He had a career high 22 Defensive Misplays & Errors in 2023 and committed them at a little higher rate than in 2021 or 2022.

Taylor will turn 33 in late March, so perhaps with age comes some slowing down. But even so, he seems to still have something left to give.

The bat

I imagine the concerns with Taylor are more with the .220 batting average and .279 on-base percentage last season than anything else. 

Taylor had a big hole at the area that we classify “down and away,” going 8-for-83 in at-bats that ended with a pitch there (his .096 batting average and 56% rate of swings missed) were bottom 10% in that stat). His overall contact rate decreased nearly 5 percentage points from 2022. He basically accepted some missed swings in return for more home runs (a career-high 21). 

The result: Even with the issues Taylor had, it was still his best offensive season since 2017. He had an OPS of .720, a smidge below MLB average for a center fielder (.730). 

The fits

That Taylor is unsigned is somewhat surprising. 

One of his best potential fits, the Mets, who decided to move Brandon Nimmo to left field, went for Harrison Bader rather than Taylor. The Reds, a defensively-challenged team in 2023, have not gone for Taylor, who would be a useful late-inning replacement that would immediately improve their outfield defense. 

Taylor’s best current fit might be with the Padres, who are currently projected to replace Trent Grisham (traded to Yankees) with Jose Azocar, who has a .633 career OPS in a little more than 300 plate appearances. Taylor, who has averaged better than 2.5 bWAR the last 3 seasons, would absolutely be an upgrade there.

Taylor isn’t Blake Snell or Matt Chapman, but he’s still a useful player who could be a key piece for a winning team. As someone who writes about good defense as his beat, I can without question say he still deserves a legitimate role on an MLB team in 2024.