Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Jameson Taillon had the worst start of his young career on May 3, giving up a career-high six runs to the Cincinnati Reds in five innings. Five days later, he would undergo surgery for testicular cancer.
At the time, it was a difficult blow for both Taillon and the Pirates. The youngster was pitching well, posting a 2.08 ERA through his first five starts before the loss to the Reds. Along with Ivan Nova, he was one of the Pirates’ few reliable starters.
After the surgery, there was no timetable on his return. But within three weeks, Taillon was back on the mound making a rehab start. His return to the minors, however, would be short lived. After just three appearances between Indianapolis and Altoona, he was back on a Major League mound—a little more than a year after his MLB debut.
His return came against one of the National League’s best, the Colorado Rockies. In the Monday night start, Taillon went five innings, allowing no runs and two walks while striking out five. On a tight pitch count, Bucs manager Clint Hurdle went to the ‘pen after Taillon had thrown 82 pitches. The team’s bullpen would protect the lead for him in a 7-2 win, and he notched the victory in his first game back.
Overcoming adversity isn’t foreign to Taillon, though, as the cancer diagnosis wasn’t the first setback for the young pitcher.
Things started out well for the now 25-year-old right-hander in his career. He was a first-round draft pick in 2010, going second overall as a highly touted high school prospect who earned the second-highest signing bonus in history.
Baseball Prospectus ranked Taillon as a top 10 prospect in baseball prior to the 2011 season and he was listed amongst the top 30 according to both Baseball Prospectus and Baseball America from 2011 through 2015. He debuted on a big stage, when he pitched for Team Canada in the World Baseball Classic in 2013.
It was just a year later when the righty’s stock began to drop, as he began battling some bad luck with health issues.
In April 2014, Taillon tore his ulnar collateral ligament, prompting the need for Tommy John surgery. After missing the entire season recovering, he suffered a sports hernia while making his comeback and sat out the entire 2015 campaign.
After two years without pitching in a competitive game, Baseball America dropped him from their top prospect lists while Baseball Prospectus ranked him much more conservatively at No. 51.
Taillon had made it all the way to Triple-A in 2013 before the injury and looked good in his brief six-start stint there. So it wasn’t too surprising that the Pirates were aggressive with him in 2016, putting him back at Triple-A. And he dominated immediately.
In 10 games at Indianapolis, Taillon went 4-2 with a 2.04 ERA and 0.811 WHIP. He walked just six in 61.2 innings and posted a 10.17 strikeout to walk ratio. Taillon received the call to the parent club and toed the rubber for the first time at PNC Park last June 8.
The Pirates ultimately lost that game to Noah Syndergaard and the Mets, but Taillon recorded his first quality start, going six innings and giving up three runs. Hurdle praised his work as the team prepared to send him back to Triple-A. The effort was supposed to be a spot start, but he followed that up with an encore against New York filling in for Gerrit Cole six days later. This time, he allowed just two hits and no runs over eight innings at Citi Field.
Taillon’s success would continue, as he became the Pirates’ best starter. He went 5-4 with a 3.38 ERA and 1.112 WHIP in 104 innings in 2016, posting a strong strikeout to walk ratio of five. He gave up a few more home runs than he’d like, but he made the opposition earn their way on base and pitched very well for a team that ended up five games below .500.
Overall, the Pirates are 16-9 in starts made by Taillon in his career. He’s certainly a welcome sight back in the Pirates’ rotation this season, as Nova is currently the only other dependable arm. Cole’s ERA has jumped to 4.83, but even at 3-6 he’s been better than Chad Kuhl, Trevor Williams and Tyler Glasnow.
While the Pirates are just 29-35, there are reasons for fans to have hope. Felipe Rivero and Juan Nicasio have been lights out in the bullpen to aid Taillon and Nova in the rotation, and Andrew McCutchen has been resurrected from the dead.
Don’t look now, but the Pirates are just four games back of the first-place Milwaukee Brewers in a tight NL Central. And their young stud arm has returned. Pittsburgh just may be a nice sleeper option in our MLB Pick ‘Em Contests.
The club is also about a month away from a possible Starling Marte return, so don’t count the Bucs out just yet.