Off the bat, conclusions were universal: Hit. New York Mets infielder Eric Campbell hit a 1-1 fastball from Gio Gonzalez toward the right-center gap. The Mets needed the ball to fall in. They were trailing the Washington Nationals on the field, 5-2, and in the standings by two games. Bad fielding and surprisingly unsteady pitching from starter Matt Harvey bumped the Mets into a hole.
“I was thinking extra bases off the bat,” Campbell said. “I was thinking we had two RBIs, 5-4 game.”
The sound and flight of the ball suggested what Campbell thought was correct. Gonzalez thought the same. He anticipated the ball clanging off the wall. With Bryce Harper shaded toward the right-field line, the odds of him catching it were low.
Even with the ball in the air, Campbell still thought he had something as he steamed toward first base. He saw Michael A. Taylor, figured he wasn’t going to get there, and the Mets were back in the game.
“It just looked too far,” Campbell said. “I saw him closing, I said, ‘Wow.’”
That reaction, like initial assessments that the ball would not be caught, was also pervasive. Taylor’s anticipation, direct route and flat-out speed allowed him to catch the ball on the run, left arm extended and both feet off the ground; a flash of the future.
That Taylor is still in center field for the Nationals in late July with the pennant race rolling is a result of injury and talent. Without Denard Span, who continues to strengthen his body in order to push past abdominal and back problems, Taylor has started a third of the Nationals’ games in center field this season. He also played left field to fill-in for injured Jayson Werth.
In center, Taylor’s chances to make such a catch increase because of his view. When he works with Nationals coach Tony Tarasco, who handles their outfielders, he practices pitch and hit anticipation. The details of a hitter’s swing, what the pitcher has working — or not — that day also influence the center fielder’s decisions. Though a catcher is set up outside, if a pitcher is not sharp and is continually missing inside, Taylor will anticipate accordingly.
“If he’s missing in, there’s a chance that ball may get pulled,” Tarasco said. “So, being able to make that in-game adjustment, that’s completely left up to him.”
That was the case Monday night in what turned out to be a 7-2 victory for the Nationals. Taylor had just received the signal from Tarasco that positioning was now up to him. Tarasco expects the center fielder to exploit his view of what is happening at the plate by the middle of the game. Campbell came up with two on and two out in the top of the fifth inning.
“I pointed at him, gave him the sign, ‘You make the call,’” Tarasco said.
New metrics this season explain the details of Taylor’s trip to the ball. According to MLB’s Statcast, he began moving to his left 0.5 seconds before contact, exemplifying the anticipation he works on with Tarasco. Taylor had a route efficiency of 98 percent, meaning his trek to meet the ball was almost a direct A-to-B process. During his run, he hit a top speed of 19.8 mph.
Taylor knew that Harper was more toward the line, so it was unlikely that they would collide. He also took a few glances at the rapidly approaching wall to make sure impact was not pending. In the clear from both impediments, he reached out.
Response to the play was also telling. Taylor downshifted, remained straight-faced and started jogging toward the dugout. Harper slammed him in the chest and screamed with joy. Taylor’s swiftness in the outfield caused a rare instance of his actions calling attention to himself. As a polite, reserved 24-year-old whose father was a logistics officer in the U.S. Army, Taylor said it was his star teammate’s reaction that showed the level of the play.
“Harper’s reaction kind of let me know how exciting that was,” Taylor said. “It was fun.”
Span was also watching, and called the catch, “very, very impressive,” noting the long distance covered and the projection of where the ball was heading. In addition, Span explained how something like that can be a jolt for someone in his rookie season.
“I think it was good for him to make a play like that, for the crowd to acknowledge that,” Span said. “Just the magnitude of the game to make a play like that. As a young player, making plays like that, gives you nothing but confidence. Especially when your teammates give you just credit for making a play and possibly saving the game — I think a play like that can uplift as a young player. I remember being young and making plays as a rookie. It uplifted me, as well. I think the best is to come with him.”
Taylor admitted he watched a replay of the play to see what Statcast said about it. He was most interested in how fast he was going.
“I was hoping for better,” he said with a laugh.
When — if — the Nationals reach full health, Taylor will deal with a reduced role. Werth, who is rehabilitating with Triple-A Syracuse is expected back soon. Span still has a ways to go, which will provide Taylor more time in center, where there is room to improve beyond the meager two percent in route efficiency he left on the table Monday night. Tarasco said Taylor is learning where to throw and when, using his plus arm as another fielding weapon.
Hitting is another issue. At the plate, like young players so often are, Taylor is behind his fielding abilities. He’s hitting .235 and strikes out often, though he was not supposed to appear in 77 of the Nationals’ 92 games this season. Particular progressions can vary in speed and pain.
For Taylor, with Span in the final season of his contract, the time in center field is a likely precursor to what will be expected next season. Monday’s catch will remain video tape of what could be when Taylor’s spot with the Nationals equates to his foot speed.
“I think he’s starting to learn his role on the team and starting to kind of see the future a little bit,” Ian Desmond said. “Realizing that he’s going to be a big part of it and taking ownership of that.”