Looking Back: The Brien Taylor Story

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(Photo via The Houston Chronicle)

The Brien Taylor story is a sad one and a familiar one. Drafted first overall back in 1991, the high schooler from some remote corner of North Carolina was supposed to be the next great Yankee left-hander. Instead, his career was derailed after just two seasons by injury, a self-inflicted injury at that. I wrote about Taylor’s career and life over at FanGraphs on Wednesday, an ode to the best pitcher none of us ever got to see…

Pitching prospects may as well go out to the mound in bubble wrap these days, protected with pitch counts and innings limitations and the like. Back in 1992, things were very different. Less than one year out of high school, a 20-year-old Taylor was assigned to the High Class-A Florida State League and threw 161.1 innings across 27 starts in his pro debut. He struck out 187 of the 663 batters he faced (28.2%), walked 66 (10.0%), and allowed just three homers. Baseball America considered him the second best prospect in the game after the season, behind only Chipper Jones.

“From a development standpoint, Taylor showed the Yankees all they wanted to see: well above-average arm strength, an effortless delivery and the ability to locate pitches with rare precision,” wrote the publication in their AL East Top 10 Prospects issue, published in February 1993. “Taylor’s fastball reached 98 mph on occasion and consistently hit 95. He also threw a power curve and changed speeds off it. Scouts marveled at Taylor’s ability to keep his head as he unleashed his full arsenal of pitches … Scouts say he’ll be ready for New York by September.”

Bumped up to the Double-A Eastern League the next season, Taylor again made 27 starts, this time throwing 163 innings. His strikeout (21.1 K%) and walk (14.3 BB%) rates took a step back, and he gave up more than twice as many homers as the year before, a whopping seven dingers. It was a disappointing performance given the hype, but for a kid less than two years out of high school in Double-A, he more than held his own. That was the last time Taylor would experience success on a baseball field.

Not counting the recent guys, Taylor is one of just three first overall selections to never reach the big leagues, joining Steve Chilcott (1966) and Matt Bush (2004). He was a bust but not the wrong pick, those are two entirely separate ideas. Taylor was a phenom, arguably the best high school pitching prospect in draft history, and he got hurt in a freak, off-the-field accident. You can’t get on the Yankees for that, but that’s never stopped people. Click the link and check out the entire piece, I hear it’s pretty awesome.

Yanks sign Adam Miller, Cole Garner to minor league deals
Does the Zambrano trade tell us anything about Burnett?
  • Justin

    As a black dude myself, and considering how often folks lament our relatively declining MLB participation (though of course the Yanks currently have several black stars), I’m surprised I didn’t know until just now that he was black.

    That doesn’t make the story any sadder – it’s already pretty damn sad – just something I didn’t know.

    Great job, Mike.

    • John White

      Same here, always thought he was a white dude

    • Mister Delaware

      I can’t be the only one that you two are making feel really old with those comments.

      (But, for us not as younger guys, Brien Taylor is 40 years old. What???)

      • Adam

        Agreed, I had the same exact thought while reading all of this.

    • Trey

      Yep Justin he is black and a great friend of mine. I met him years later after his baseball career. We were great billiard buddies. I shot pool with him for several years and hung out with him and he was such a humble guy I never knew he played baseball. I caught a few comments here and there from people in Morehead City NC saying he played baseball and was really good, but I didn’t know he PLAYED baseball. Brien is my brother and always will be! No matter what mistakes he’s made recently. He is a guy that will give you the shirt off his back. He has several children and if you look at his job status as a brickmason making a little over 800 a month and trying to take care of his children on that, sometime we do what we have to do even if the consequences are harsh. It’s a sad story indeed but Brien don’t want anyone feeling sorry for him and would love to be left alone but the media just can’t let that happen because of who he was. The people in the world should know what kind of person he really is. He is great! Yes he made mistakes recently but who is perfect? Props to my boy B and hold your head up! 2014 and you’ll be out and hope the lesson was learned and we can get back to shooting pool.

  • Rich in NJ

    As good as the Yankees were without him through the 1995 season, a big contribution from Taylor may have enabled Showalter to reap the fruits of success that ultimately accrued to Torre.

  • Dieter

    None of us got to see???
    Saw him pitch at AA in New Britain CT against the Red Sox AA team; must have been 1993. Great fastball, terrible control and a horrible move to first. I don’t think he pitched five innings.
    I’m not a scout, just a fan. The guy needed A LOT of work before he was AAA ready, let alone big time.

    • Urban

      He was ready for AAA stuff wise, but he did need work on some fundamentals, chief of which was holding on runners. Makes sense because in high school no one ever got on base. Even in his first two years of pro ball he was very difficult to hit, but his walk rate increased once he hit AA and that’s when his problem holding on runners really surfaced. He probably would have needed two more years in AAA before being MLB ready. How good he would have been is a question we’ll never know. No question the talent was there.

  • Dieter

    None of us got to see???
    Saw him pitch at AA level in New Britain CT against the Red Sox AA team. It must have been 1993. Great fastball, terrible control and a horrible move to first. I don’t think he pitched five innings.
    I’m not a scout, just a fan. The guy needed A LOT of work before he was AAA ready, let alone big time.

  • Urban

    My, heavens, what a crappy draft crop from 1991. Looking back on it, Taylor makes even more sense. If not for the arm injury, he cearly had the chance to make a major impact.

    I was already in my 20s when this draft came about and there was tremendous debate and interest in it. (I can only imagine what it would be like today with all the blogs and online coverage.) After all, how often do the Yankees get the #1 draft pick in the nation? The debate was between two players: Taylor or Mike Kelly a top hitter from Arizona State. Much was written about the high failure rate of young pitchers straight out of high school, but the consensus was Taylor’s arm was so rare (think about it, how many 18-year lefty starters can basically hit 100 mph?) that the Yankees had to take the chance. It didn’t work out because of the injury, yet it’s not as if things would have worked out better if they selected Kelly. Those were both easily regarded as the top talents in that draft.

    Anyway, here’s the link. Manny Ramariz would have been the choice with the 20/20 perspective of knowing how each of these player’s careers would fall out, then again, that’s kind of like having 20/20 hindsight after the lottery numbers are announced. Has MLB gotten better at drafting top players, or was this just a poor talent class?


  • Irish Yankee

    Does anyone know when single game tickets go on sale for yankee regular season games?

    I am making my first trip to Yankee Stadium for opening homestand against the angels and want to get good tickets at reasonable price (relatively!).

    If anyone has any advice about the best place to buy tickets (RAB Tickets?) that would also be appreciated?

    • Peter North

      I think they should be available in a month or so. First place to look is always the team website. If tix are sold out, RAB Tickets is a good aggregator and Stubhub is good, too.

      The link below is a great tool to see what your view of the field would be from each section and can even display the sun at various times of day and season. The bleachers offer the most lively atmosphere, though obviously you’re a bit far from the action. Unlike the old stadium, these seats are no longer “segregated” from the rest of the stadium and they do sell beer. 400-level seats can be a good value if you’re behind the batter (well, above the batter) or as close as possible. I think the 300-level seats are very good for the money (all relative, of course). My least-favorite seats are near the right-field foul pole, but that is all subjective. With the link below, you can decide for yourself.


      • Irish Yankee

        thanks for that Peter

  • Josh

    Growing up my father, grandfather, and I were lucky enough to have Albany-Colonie (AA) Yankees seasons tickets for a few years. Some great memories growing up watching many eventual Yankees.

    As most kids from aged 9-13, I also was an avid autograph hunter. Sadly, Brien Taylor’s was not only difficult to get, but after he signed his card he wiped his thumb across his own signature. He did this for every autograph I witnessed. At the time, (being 9) I just thought he was trying to have his own trade mark. As I got to watch him pitch, I tend to think he just was a bad kid.

    He was electric with a fastball, but his make-up was all wrong (or at least incredibly immature). That “freak off the field accident” was hardly an accident. He got into a fight and he destroyed his pitching arm. The fight was confronting a guy who already beat up his brother.

    After he had surgery to repair the damage, he battled control for a few more years before being out of baseball. (walked 54 in 40 innnings in 1995, walked 43 in 16.1 inngins in 1996).

    My memory will be fuzzy, and I genuinely think more poeticly about the AC Yankees, but I remember Brien as a very self-centered hot head.

  • Scout

    Mike Axisa: “The best prospect blogger none of us ever got to see write for the New York Times….”

  • Jumpin’ Jack Swisher

    Before we knew the names Jeter, Posada, and Rivera, Brien Taylor was all we had to get excited about in ’91. He was the sign that, as bad as the Chuck Cary All-Stars were, and as long as the team had gone without a championships, things were going to get better.

  • the Other Steve S.

    Well, BA was certainly right about Chipper Jones.

  • Paul VuvuZuvella

    Have always believed if Brien stayed healthy, Andy would surely have been traded. I’ll take reality the way it unfolded.

  • Adam

    I have a vague recollection of a Yankee game in Arlington at the end of the ’92 (or so) season where MSG (with the new Ballpark being built) speculating about a future Yankee-Rangers game. I remember an excerpt from an imaginary game with play-by-play commentary voiced over images of the under construction stadium, speculating about a Yankee team with Brien Taylor on the mound and Bernie in center field. I have no idea why I remember this. It may just speak to what was so forgettable about watching the early 90s Yanks and the little shred of hope that Taylor did give to the fans.

  • nck

    God, he was my favorite yankee of all time. I was soo psyched when the yanks drafted him, I had heard the stories about his high school career, udoubtedly exaggerated, about how he couldn’t field ground balls because no one ever hit the ball back to him in hs. I also heard that he struck out over 75% of the guys he faced his last year. I know that can’t possible be right, but i got fired up to see this guy in the bigs.

    A sad sad story. However, considering how his life has gone AFTER baseball, i don’t think the fight was entirely NOT his fault. I sure hope he saved some on his MILLION dollar signing bonus…….but i HIGHLY HIGHLY doubt it.

    Correctly titled….a sad, SAD story.