Mason: How Josh Taylor went from undrafted underdog to big league talent

Josh Taylor never went to a Division I school nor heard his name called on draft day.AP Photo/Michael Dwyer

The deal went down in late March, but Josh Taylor’s phone wouldn’t ring until May. Faced with a roster crunch in Fort Myers last year, the Red Sox traded Deven Marrero to the Diamondbacks for a player to be named later or cash considerations. After seven weeks of contemplation, that player was named: left-handed prospect Josh Taylor.

“It’s definitely different,” Taylor said. “You see a guy come over around the end of spring training, two months or so pass and you kind of just go, ‘OK, well they must have just taken cash or something.’ Then outta nowhere when you get the call saying that you’re the player to be named later, you’re like, ‘For what? From when? When did that happen?’” Taylor was a Double-A arm that wasn’t ranked among the Diamondbacks’ Top 30 prospects, but in the 15 months since, he’s emerged as one of Alex Cora’s most trusted relievers. The 26-year-old lefty wasn’t expected to be a major piece of Boston’s big league bullpen, but Taylor has made an entire career out of defying the odds.

HUMBLE BEGINNINGS

During the 2014 MLB Draft, 1,215 players heard their name called. Taylor wasn’t one of them.

Well, that’s not entirely true. Ryan Taylor went to the Dodgers, Seattle picked Wayne Taylor, and Owen Taylor was one of Toronto’s final choices, but there was no Josh. After two years at Scottsdale Junior College, Taylor had just finished his junior season at Division II Georgia College, and his numbers weren’t where he wanted them to be — in the box score or on the radar gun. In a Peach Belt league that felt like a hitters’ haven, Taylor went 7-4 with a 5.62 ERA and 1.92 WHIP.

Despite already boasting a 6-foot-5, 225-pound frame, Taylor’s fastball didn’t have enough bite. Despite a couple of nibbles, no MLB clubs bit on draft day either.

“I had a couple teams that were getting back to me during the draft and kind of just lowering and lowering it,” Taylor recalled. “At that point I just figured I’d have a chance to have a better year next year and go from there my senior year.” But Taylor never returned to Georgia.

ARMED AND DANGEROUS

That summer he flew to Minnesota and pitched for the St. Cloud Rox of the aptly named Northwoods League. Working with new pitching coach J.P. Martinez, Taylor had the breakthrough he’d been waiting for.

With Martinez’s help, he finally began to maximize that big frame.

“He just helped me break down my mechanics,” Taylor said. “I was leaking open. I was flying open. My mechanics weren’t compact. They were just kind of everywhere. He just helped me simplify it and use the power that was being left behind with poor mechanics. “That jumped my velo over,” Taylor said. “I think that might be something that was overlooked during college. The development side. Once I found that and I was able to get outs in the zone with fastballs and mixing in offspeed, I think that helped my value afterwards into the free agent process.” Armed with a fastball that was now playing in the mid-90s (up nearly 5 mph from the previous season), Taylor signed with the Phillies as an undrafted free agent instead of returning to school. He was traded to his hometown Diamondbacks in 2015, and kicked around the minors until the Red Sox came calling last spring. “I think it worked out for me,” Taylor said in the Fenway Park clubhouse. “It really helped me regain the confidence and the drive to be better and show people that I do have what it takes to get up here.”

SLIDING TO THE ‘PEN

As he transitioned from a starter to a reliever, Taylor’s arsenal was tweaked and the results continued to improve. His first full season in the ‘pen came in 2018, the bulk of it spent in Portland.

“Prior to two years ago I was a starter and it was fastball, curveball, and I’d mix the slider and the changeup every now and then, but curveball was my main pitch,” Taylor explained. “When I got moved to the bullpen I was told, ‘Hey, we want you to go fastball-slider.’ It was hard to throw away the pitch that’d helped me as a starter, but when I really started to trust that more than my fastball and throw it in games and get results, it really helped the confidence in that pitch.” After an inauspicious start with the Sea Dogs — he allowed six earned runs in his first two outings — things began to really click with Taylor. He posted a 2.61 ERA in his final 20 appearances with Portland in 2018, opened this season in Triple-A Pawtucket, and after an impressive two months earned his first call to the majors. “I just really started to trust my stuff more,” Taylor said. “Just attack hitters. My slider last year was one of the key contributors to me getting outs, like really trusting that.”

TAKING CONTROL

At the big league level, Taylor has emerged as a dominant lefty in Cora’s bullpen. He came into this weekend with a 2.92 ERA and 48 strikeouts in 37 innings.

Though he didn’t have the path of least resistance, Taylor always believed he could have an impact like this, even if no Division I schools or teams on draft day did.

“I think it was all in due time for it to show,” Taylor said. “I’ve always had confidence in myself and my ability to pitch at any level. Obviously it’s nice to have numbers show for it, but that’s not my driving factor. I don’t look at numbers. I don’t think, ‘Oh I can do this and this and have this.’ I’m just here to get outs. I’m here to come into the game whenever they call on me and get three outs or six outs, whatever they need as quickly as possible.” His call to the majors may have come a little late — just like that one from the Red Sox last May — but unwavering in his confidence, Taylor has proven ready to answer whenever it rings.

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