At first glance, prawn cocktail crisps and the great Trevor Hoffman seem to have little in common, but for a dual national like Blake Taylor, these are two of the Anglo-American’s favourite things. While the imported potato snacks helped Taylor survive high school, childhood idol Hoffman has aided the pitcher’s burgeoning career in a more significant way. Drafted by the Pirates out of California, Taylor’s career has been slowed by injuries, but Great Britain’s rising star has a bright outlook.
Taylor first burst onto the international scene almost exactly a year ago when the Mets’ prospect returned from Tommy John surgery to suit up for Great Britain in World Baseball Classic qualification. The southpaw tossed four impressive frames against Brazil, which had been the Cinderella story of the 2013 Classic. Team GB ultimately claimed a 4-3 win on the back of Taylor and Chris Reed’s pitching to advance to the tournament’s final game.
We spoke to Taylor during spring training as he prepared for his first campaign after arm surgery with an assignment to full-season Columbia in the South Atlantic League (“The Sally”). Then 21, it was obvious that the hurler was champing at the bit to take the mound again, and Taylor talked about his goals for the season and reflected on his first appearance for Team GB (link).
In the final weeks of the minor league season, our team toured ballparks in the southeast of the U.S., but were stymied on our first attempt to follow up with Taylor. Our visit to South Carolina for Columbia’s series with the Greenville Drive came after Taylor had been shut down with an injury, but the Fireflies’ Sam Hyman connected us as the season wound down.
Taylor’s injuries had not been reported beyond his move to the minor league disabled list, but the native of Southern California broke down his season and the effect that an unexpected malady on him before speaking more about his time with the national team of Great Britain. Audio of the interivew is available at our Soundcloud (link).
“This year was a little different than last year because this was my first full season and, you know, 140 games is very long! Halfway through the season you’re like, ‘I have another 70 games to play!’ It is a grind on your body, but throughout the season, I never hard arm trouble. That was the one thing I felt was a pretty good thing for me. That means I did my offseason programme right. It means I kept my arm healthy and my body in shape for season.”
Until the 2017 season, Taylor had managed only 29 games with a 3.39 ERA, all but three appearances in various rookie leagues. After missing most of 2015 and ’16, Taylor had a brief tuneup in his return from TJ in the Appalachian League, appearing in five games for Kingsport. Keeping his arm healthy for the grind of a full minor league campaign was the priority this year.
“[But], something just started happening in my foot. I felt it pretty close to the middle of the year and I just tried to pitch through it to try and get as many innings as I could and it really got to the point where it was so hard for me to even walk and even pitching was really tough for me.
Eventually, Taylor received a disappointing diagnosis: his left foot had bone spurs and bone chips, with the additional problem of cartilage loss. The pain became too bad to pitch effectively and, after struggling in his last four starts, Taylor was shut down at the end of July.
“There were a couple starts where it was one level and then the next couple I was like, ‘This hurts a lot more,’ and then by the last couple outings I thought, ‘This is not good, at all.’”
Predictably, not being able to push off his left foot started to have a deep impact on the southpaw’s ability to pitch.
“I was trying really hard not to push off my food as hard, so it affected some stuff. Not pushing off and trying to finish at the same time was really hard, so I would leave balls up in the zone and either get hit around or start throwing a lot of balls, so it was hard to get the ball down in the zone.”
The plan going into the season had been to work on a third pitch, the changeup. Taylor already throws a good curveball and can hit 95 with his fastball, though he sits in the low 90s.
“I was making really good progress with [the changeup], actually, until the foot thing started bugging me. For my changeup, I try to keep my back foot on the rubber for as long as possible and then really try and push off, so that was a really tough pitch to throw since I was trying not to push off or do anything with my back foot, so it was just really hard for me to command toward the back end of my starts.
On the surface, struggling with an injury, finding it physically painful to work on his main goal, and missing the last six weeks of the season might sound like a lost season, but there were plenty of positives. Taylor threw 85 2/3 frames in 18 games (17 starts) and, despite struggling to pitch in the zone, continued to induce an above-average amount of groundballs (47 percent). Batters hit only .253 against him, with only a slight platoon advantage, which bodes well for Taylor to stick as a starter.
“At the end of the year, [the Mets] had a sit-down meeting [with me] and they said, ‘Don’t reflect on this year as a bad year. Stuff just didn’t really go your way a lot of the time and there a lot of runs you gave up that shouldn’t have been runs.’
“They told me, ‘You really established your fastball, you can work both sides of the plate, you’re not afraid to throw inside, you’ve got a good curveball and you can throw it at all times. We like that you worked on developing a third pitch. The only thing we can really say is to cut down on the walks and if you do that you’re going to be fine.’”
Walks were problematic for Taylor in the first half of the season, but as his condition worsened so did his control as he issued 21 free passes in 29 1/3 second half innings. As Taylor points out, though, his foot injury severely affected his control, which is good news for 2018. With the season over and Mets’ minor leaguers going to Instructional League, Taylor should have some clarity soon.
“I am going back to Florida pretty soon [Ed: Taylor is now wrapping up his time] and the doctor has made an insole for me, so I am going to start throwing in that and see if that helps. Hopefully, it does and I don’t have to get surgery.”
There were no plans for Taylor to take the bump in instructs, just for him to work on stabilising his foot and getting used to the insole. I asked Taylor whether finally having a healthy arm and receiving the promotion to the Sally before struggling so much with his foot and then control had left him frustrated. His short reply said everything.
“Yeah. [Pause] Pretty frustrating.”
I summed up the gains that Taylor had made, though, noting that he shattered his season totals for innings pitched and doubled his career innings mark. His 3.99 ERA and career-best 8.3 strikeouts per nine innings in the first half were very promising as well.
“Yeah, it’s really reassuring that what I’ve been doing and the hard work since Tommy John is paying off arm-wise.”
More intangible progress has made been on the mental aspect of the game and this traces back to Taylor’s selection to Great Britain’s WBC squad. As one of the youngest starting pitchers in the Classic, Taylor was surrounded by veteran players and coaches, including GB’s pitching coach, Trevor Hoffman. I asked him how pitching for the national team affected the way he has since prepared for a start.
“It was a lot different when I was in Brooklyn for the WBC, because the team in the other dugout—it’s like when I would pitch this season, they’re all Low-A guys—there were some guys on that team who were Triple-A guys, Double-A guys, High-A, Low-A. We faced a guy that was in the big leagues pitching against us [Jason Marquis]. It was like, ‘Okay!’ It was a different thing because they had guys from all over the minors, whereas this year everyone I faced was in the same league.
“When I pitched for Great Britain, I noticed that the higher-level guys are more disciplined at the plate. They’re not going to chase a lot of things, they’re going to look for that one pitch in one spot for their first two strikes and then have to battle for their third. I learned that and so when I would face a more experienced hitter in the Sally League—a guy that came from college or a guy that’s hot—I would try to pitch to what I saw in his approach. I would see what he would swing at. And then there were some guys who I couldn’t really throw a pitch near the strike zone because if I did, they would hit it.”
Though minor leaguers are professional and regular receive instruction from MLB legends in the form of coaches, roving instructors, and at practices in spring training, some retired big leaguers hit closer to home. We discussed Brazil, which featured manager Barry Larkin and LaTroy Hawkins as pitching coach, plus Israel (“[They had] Craig Breslow—something like six guys for Israel had big league time!”), but one coach stood out.
“When I was a kid, my two favourite pitchers were Trevor Hoffman and Randy Johnson. They both wore the number 51 and I have the number 51 for spring training because of those two, and it was really cool to even get to talk to Trevor Hoffman.
“As a kid growing up, I remember going to Padres’ games and, when they were winning in the ninth, Trevor Hoffman would come out to “Hell’s Bells” and it was just a cool experience: I get to actually talk to him and he is going to help me out pitching-wise.”
Hoffman, to whom we spoke in Brooklyn (link), played a significant role in this mental development in the one week the team was together.
“He would tell me almost the same thing [Ed: Taylor’s discussion above of more experienced players’ plate discipline]: You have to learn how to read hitters based on their stance, based on their swings, and once you start facing hitters over and over again, you’re going to start realising what [batters’] tendencies are at the plate.
Though Britain had a heartbreaking exit from WBC qualification, losing two close games to Israel, this year’s fairytale story, the memories stayed close to Taylor’s heart. Teammates, especially during spring training, asked Taylor, only four years out of high school, wanted to know what it was like to represent a country.
“They would always ask, “How is it to pitch for a national team?” or “What is the experience like compared to minor league baseball?” and I would always say that it was a lot different. Minor league baseball is fun and all—really fun, don’t get me wrong—but when you play for a country…when I play for the Fireflies, I play for the New York Mets or the city I live in at the time, but for Great Britain, you’re playing for an entire country, you’re playing for your heritage. It’s just a different thing, it’s like a war, but just a different kind of war, fighting to see what country is the strongest country in baseball.
Since then, Taylor has kept in contact with a number of players and coaches for Great Britain.
“I have talked to Nolan Bond a couple times, I’ve talked to Jordan Serena a lot. I talked to Chris Berset a couple times, Zach [Graefser], the pitching coach, a couple times. [Head Coach] Liam [Carroll] emailed me the other day and we emailed back-and-forth for a bit.”
Bond is 15 months younger than Taylor, but along with P.J. Conlon, lead an impressive crop of young pitching that Carroll can dream on. Bond had an electric performance at the Under-23 European Championship, making our list our list of Top 20 Prospects (link), and we spoke to him after he pitched six of seven innings of a no-hitter at the Euros (link). We asked Taylor whether he was aware of the feat.
“Yeah, it was, that’s amazing! I tweeted at him after that.” Taylor continued, “Liam and I were talking about the Euros in 2019 to qualify for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo and I am hoping that I can play in that and get Great Britain into the Olympics. That would be kind of fun!”
Europe is guaranteed two spots in the 2020 Olympic baseball competition, and Britain has already begun preparing, though funding has been hard to come by at times. British fans, though, ought to have a lot to cheer about if Carroll can muster all eligible players, with the trio of emerging arms potentially joining veterans Michael Roth, Jake Esch, and Barry Enright in front of a dynamic core of position players.
“It would be amazing to win it. If we have the team we can, we will win [the European Championship] and go to the Olympics.
Several of these players, like Taylor, play in the Mets’ system. Conlon, a righthander born in Belfast, was joined on the Double-A Binghamton Mets by speedster Champ Stuart, who led the Eastern League in stolen bases (35). Conlon told us about his disappointment at hitting his innings limit just before last September’s qualifier and relayed that Stuart told him “Maybe if we’d had you, we would have qualified for the next round!” (interview link). Taylor agreed.
“P.J. didn’t play for us, but I talked to him in spring and he said, ‘Man, I really wish I could have played, that would have been cool!’ I feel like having him would have given us an edge over Israel. I think I we could have beat Israel if we had had all of these guys.
“Everywhere I’ve gone, I’ve always had my Great Britain hat and GB practice jersey and our GB shorts. We have a little zippered tote bag that they gave us, so I keep that in my locker just to remind me. I keep that stuff for sentimental value and I keep that stuff to remind me that not only am I playing for the Mets, I am also representing another country.”
Taylor might have grown up in Southern California, but unlike Conlon, grew up with strong British traditions, emphasising the importance of the GB mementoes in his locker. After Taylor brought up speaking with Conlon in spring training, I passed along the anecdote Conlon told of syncretic Anglo-American holidays that dedicated readers of this site will, no doubt, remember.
“They have Christmas crackers at Thanksgiving? That’s funny! It’s so impossible to find those stupid things. They’re always really funny!
I asked about Taylor’s heritage, especially given that he sounds more like Conlon, who grew up 35 miles away from him, than some of his British teammates.
“Everyone always asks where my accent is, and I don’t have one. My Dad is from England, and his parents are from England and they all live around us. There is a lot of British stuff we do. At Christmas, we do the traditional turkey and all that stuff, and we don’t really have Thanksgiving—we eat turkey a month later—and we have a lot of curry.
“We drink a lot of tea and have a lot of curry! We like some British candies, like Flakes, Crunchies, pastels—I don’t know what you call them—[prompted: Fruit Pastilles] yeah, pastels! We like all that stuff, so we are in touch with our British side.
Did Taylor receive ‘care packages’ of British food?
“Sometimes! [Laughs] Sometimes my grandparents send some stuff.
“Do the other guys give you a hard time about opening a box and it being all weird English foods?” I asked.
“No, because they know I have a very good taste for food and candies, so people always ask if I have more. I didn’t really get sent crisps—or potato crisps, whatever they’re called—but in high school my Dad would pack them for lunch and all my friends would ask, ‘Why do you have prawn flavoured crisps!?’ and I would say, ‘Oh, they’re really good, trust me!’”
Our last topic was the Collective Bargaining Agreement, which our site broke down in detail after it was released at the end of July (link). The CBA includes provisions for regular season games in London in 2019 and 2020 and Taylor is dreaming about the possibility.
“I really hope I’m on one of the teams that get to play there!”
We concluded, noting that it would be great to see Taylor on the British side of ‘the pond’. I pointed out that GB players have a cult following among baseball fans in the UK, particularly with the ascendancy of the team at the Classic and the founding of sites like Batflips and Nerds. Taylor laughed in surprise to hear of his status—“That’s interesting!”— and said he would check out the British fanbase.
We also asked whether he would have any interesting in going to the UK and doing a holiday with some workshops with younger British players.
“I’ve always wanted to go to England and, if I was offered, I would try to make it work as best as I could and get over there! Thank you guys for making me part of the team!”
Thanks to Sam Hyman of the Columbia Fireflies for helping us connect with Taylor. All images copyright Extra Innings unless otherwise noted.