When the situation called for it, Chris Taylor always slid headfirst.
He did, that is, until May 13.
The Tacoma Rainiers’ shortstop knew the catcher had seen him, heard the coaches call out “runner,” and knew it would be close. So he slid, headfirst. His left hand was the only part of him that hit the target, sweeping by second base.
All except the pinkie finger, which caught the corner of the hard plastic base and stretched back, farther than a finger should ever go.
The resulting fracture sent him to the seven-day disabled list and might have cost him a chance at going to the majors. Ever since, Taylor has done his sliding feetfirst.
“I’m just being a little cautious,” he said. “Some people think it’s dangerous, but I think it’s faster and that it gives me an edge, so I’m sure once I get in a moment where I’m feeling competitive, I’ll go headfirst again.”
Rainiers manager Roy Howell says that just shows what kind of player Taylor is.
“He’s a tough kid, and he puts his head down and works,” he said. “He’s a good little shortstop.”
At the beginning of the season, the parent club Seattle Mariners had some tough decisions to make concerning their middle infield. The offseason addition of Robinson Cano gave the M’s an easy choice at second base but left a question mark at shortstop.
Two candidates – last year’s starter, Brad Miller, coming off a rookie campaign where he hit .265 with a .737 on-base plus slugging, and second baseman Nick Franklin – battled throughout spring training for the starting spot, with Miller eventually winning the job.
Once the regular season began and Miller’s average dipped to .151, and Franklin’s to an even worse .128 in a brief call-up, Taylor entered into the shortstop equation.
“I didn’t really listen to the chatter that was going on, who was saying what about getting called up,” Taylor said. “I was just trying to go about my business, and if I got called up, I was ready.”
Taylor provided an interesting option.
Taylor, 23, was selected in the fifth round of the 2012 Major League Baseball draft out of the University of Virginia. The 6-foot-1 right-handed batter came into the minors hitting and hasn’t stopped. He batted .335 in Single A and .293 in Double A in 2013, earning the organization’s minor league player of the year.
This season, his first in Triple A, Taylor was hitting .372 before he broke his finger.
At every level, he has been successful, despite spending relatively little time there. He attributes it to his ability to make adjustments on the fly.
By keeping things the same, Taylor is able to adapt to the new.
“He takes a real simple, grounded approach to the way he prepares and plays the game, every single day,” Rainiers hitting coach Cory Snyder said.
That approach manifests itself in everything Taylor does. When he’s taking batting practice, he always starts with the ball on a tee, then moves through bunting and then finally into full swings. When he’s practicing his fielding, he does the same routine every day.
Even his speech is deliberate and measured. He is thoughtful and means every word he says.
“That makes it easier for him to be successful because he does the same thing, and it makes it a routine for him,” Snyder said. “It keeps him grounded, keeps his head where it should be.”
The routine has worked for Taylor so far, and when Miller’s big league struggles hit hard, Taylor seemed poised to make his first appearance with Seattle — until he broke his finger.
“It was one of those freak things, part of the game,” he said. “I slide all the time, but injuries just happen. You can’t control them or let them control you.”
When he came back from the DL, Taylor didn’t play like the same player. His average dipped to .328.
Taylor’s slump even followed him into the field, where he has made an uncharacteristically high number of errors.
One scout said that’s to be expected with a hand injury. It causes batters to be more careful because any minor pain is magnified during the recovery.
“I feel fine physically, it’s nothing to do with that,” Taylor said. “I think it’s just a matter of seeing pitches again, getting back into that everyday grind of playing baseball. It’s a tough game. It’s not going to just happen in a week.”
Snyder thinks Taylor is ready to play in the major leagues right now if the Mariners needed him.
“He could play, he’s just working on mentally understanding the ups and downs, and that whatever needs work on down here will be magnified up there,” he said. “But he’s ready to take his shot.”
Taylor says he tries to just work on being as good as he can, and preparing himself for when the opportunity comes. He had three hits in his last start Monday, including a double with a throw that almost got him out, which Taylor narrowly avoided.
His competitive spirit got the better of him, and he slid into second, headfirst.