The Milwaukee Brewers announced seven September call-ups yesterday, including one player who was making his first trip to the major leagues: right-handed pitcher Taylor Williams. The Kent State product started his career back in 2013 as a 4th-round pick by the Brewers and quickly began to see his fastball velocity rise along with his stock as a prospect. During Spring Training in 2015, Ryan Braun likened Williams’ explosive fastball to that of All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel’s.
Unfortunately for Williams and the Brewers, arm issues started cropping up shortly thereafter. He began the 2015 season on the disabled list with and ultimately was forced to undergo Tommy John surgery after physical therapy and platelet-rich plasma injections couldn’t heal his ailing elbow. He wound up missing all of the 2015 and 2016 minor league seasons, returning to action last fall for instructional league. Even after the lengthy layoff, Williams showed enough at instructs to convince Milwaukee’s front office to add him to the 40 man roster in order to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft.
Williams spent this year with AA Biloxi under very close watch from the organization, and he’ll now join the big league club for the stretch run as the Milwaukee Nine chases their first postseason berth since 2011. So, what should we be looking for from the hard-throwing righty?
Williams is considered a bit undersized as a pitching prospect, standing at just 5’11” though he is a stout 195 lbs. Scouts consider his delivery to be rather high effort, featuring a notable leg kick and throwing from a three-quarters arm slot. Williams has lighting-quick arm speed, which helps him consistently generate big velocity on his fastball. Because of his smaller stature and high-effort mechanics, many scouts have had him ticketed to become a reliever since he was drafted.
Williams relies mainly on two power offerings in his arsenal, a fastball and slider. He hasn’t shown any issues in finding his pre-injury velocity this season, with his fastball sitting in the mid-90s and touching as high as 99 MPH recently for the Shuckers. The late tail that the pitch features can give batters fits at home plate, and he misses plenty of barrels and bats with his heater. His hard slider features 1-to-7 action that breaks down and away from right-handed batters. He typically uses this as his put-away pitch when he’s ahead in the count. Williams also will throw on occasion a below-average changeup that lags a good bit behind of his two other pitches in terms of quality. Williams’ high-octane stuff leads to plenty of strikeouts, but his two-pitch arsenal and fringy command again support that ultimately he’ll be better suited for bullpen duty.
Williams only crossed the 200 professional innings threshold this season after he missed so much time with his elbow troubles, but statistically he’s had little issue with minor league hitters to this point. After debuting in the Pioneer League in 2013, Williams posted a 2.72 ERA/2.23 DRA in 132.1 innings pitched between A-level Wisconsin and high-A Brevard County in 2014. He struck out 137 batters while walking only 28 and inducing ground balls at a 50% clip.
When Williams finally returned to regular season action in 2017, Milwaukee closely monitored his work load at AA Biloxi. Working mostly in a piggyback with pitching prospect Jon Perrin, Williams started in 14 of his 22 appearances this year but never worked beyond 3.2 innings or threw more than 65 pitches in any of his outings. He had been on the once-every-five-days schedule that is typical of a starting pitcher, but at the end of July the org stopped having him start games and began pitching him every 2 or 3 days while entering later on in games in preparation for a move to the bullpen.
Williams wound up tossing a total of 46.2 innings for Biloxi and registering a 3.09 ERA before getting his first call to The Show. He did strike out 28.6% percent of the batters he faced, 57 whiffs in all. He managed to keep the both ball on the ground (48%) and in the park (2 home runs allowed) very well this season. Opponents were able to hit .237 against him though, which ranked right around the median for Southern League pitchers. He also had a notable difficulty with free passes, issuing them at a rate of 4.05 per nine innings, helping lead to a WHIP of 1.35. Based on these and several other factors, Williams work in AA translated to a Deserved Run Average of 4.19 this season. That’s more than a run worse than his ERA, and in terms of overall production DRA feels his performance was actually a tiny bit worse than the average Southern League pitcher in 2017 (102 DRA-).
Ultimately there appears to be little doubt that the best way for Taylor Williams to produce meaningful value at the major league level will be out of the bullpen. Williams’ advanced age (he turned 26 in July) and the fact that he missed two full years of developmental time really put him behind the eight-ball in terms of building up the stamina and arm strength needed to pitch 160+ innings on a year-to-year basis. His middling command, lack of a trustworthy third pitch, and diminutive stature work against him as well.
Williams should get some opportunities to showcase his stuff in Milwaukee’s bullpen this September and he will probably compete for an Opening Day spot as a reliever next spring. His dynamic fastball-slider combination and high strikeout approach should continue to play extremely well out of the bullpen for the next several seasons.
In fact, one might even say that Williams is Taylor-made for a role as a big league setup man.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball Prospectus and Fangraphs