Bisons star Samad Taylor has been crazy about baseball since he was a boy in southern California, going to Angels and Dodgers games with his father and grandfather. Taylor loves the game so much it hurts. Literally.
“I kind of beat myself up during the season,” Taylor said last week before a game at Sahlen Field. “I lose a lot of sleep because I want to be on the ballfield at all times. I tell myself, ‘The sooner I get to sleep, the sooner I can wake up and get to the park.’ But a lot of times, I don’t get to bed.
“I just love being at the field. I love being around the guys. The dirt and grass, it’s home!”
It’s been a happy home for Taylor this season. In his first season in Triple-A, the Corona, California native has been the best player on a Bisons team that stands atop the East Division of the International League with a 41-30 record after taking four of six from St. Paul in a homestand last week.
Taylor, a versatile defender who has primarily played left field and second base, leads the Bisons in games (67), runs (41), home runs (9), RBIs (45), walks (28) and stolen bases (23). He entered the week tied for the league lead in stolen bases with Estevan Florial of Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
But Taylor has been equally vital as a joyful, energetic presence in the Buffalo locker room. He’s the type of player that manager Casey Candaele, who was a similar character on the Bisons’ American Association championship team 25 years ago, can truly appreciate.
“He’s just an uplifting guy,” Candaele said. “His personalty, it’s infectious. Those kind of vibes and positive things that he talks about, and his competitiveness, they’re really big for this team.”
Of course, it’s on the dirt and grass where Taylor has made the greatest impact. He was a huge factor in the St. Paul series. On Tuesday, he hit two home runs as the Bisons rallied from five runs back to win, 8-7. His three-run homer in the last of the eighth was the difference.
The following night, Taylor homered again for Buffalo’s first run. Then, with the Bisons’ down, 2-1, he led off the ninth with a single and scored the game-tying run. The Bisons won it in dramatic walk-off fashion Nick Podkul’s two-out single to center later in the inning.
It’s hard to imagine where the Bisons would be without Taylor this year. The thing is, he might not have been here at all. After a standout season at Double-A New Hampshire last season, he was left off the Blue Jays’ 40-man roster last fall. But MLB canceled the Rule 5 draft due to the lockout. Otherwise, Taylor might very well have been snatched away by another franchise.
“I can easily sit here and question why,” Taylor said. “But at the end of the day, I’m able to put a jersey on and have an opportunity to come out here and play. I tell people all the time, ‘I could have been on it, but I’m not. What am I going to do to work to get on it? I focus on keeping my head down and staying quiet and just working.
“Now, when I get in the locker room around the boys, the quietness isn’t there. But on the field, it’s go time and it’s just business. It’s my job, but it’s not my job. It’s what I love to do and I’m not going to cheat myself and I’m not going to cheat the guys around me.”
No one’s gotten cheated this season. Candaele has his guys believing that winning matters at the Triple-A level, and their play shows it. The Bisons have been in many ways a reflection of Taylor, a team that wins in the traditional way, with speed, defense and the occasional long ball. Don’t tell this squad you can’t win without home runs, that the running game is obsolete.
The Bisons are last in the IL in home runs by a wide margin. They lead the league in stolen bases with an even 100. They’re last in slugging and total bases. They’re winning with an old-school offensive construct. It helps, of course, that they’re second in the IL in ERA and fewest walks.
“He’s a good base-stealer,” Candaele said of Taylor. “That’s always a plus. There’s not a lot of elite base-stealers in the game now; it’s become a little bit of a lost art. So, if a guy can do that, it adds to his offensive importance, makes it more valuable and more of an asset to a team in a situation where maybe late in a game you need to steal a base and it wins you a ballgame.”
It’s not all about ‘launch angle’ in baseball. Speed can still affect a game, by putting pressure on opposing pitchers and defenses. In Thursday’s game, Taylor was running on the pitch and scored all the way from first on a hit into the left-field corner. The outfielder threw the ball away on the play. Later, he singled and got to second when a hasty throw went awry for an error.
Taylor admired the speedy guys as a kid. Though he was a Californian, his favorite team was the Mets because of Jose Reyes, who stole 517 bases in his career and led the NL in steals three years in a row. He was a big fan of the Angels’ Chone Figgins, who stole more than 40 bases five times and once had more than 100 runs scored and 100 walks in a season.
That’s the model that Taylor is shooting for — a guy who goes deep into counts, works walks and uses his speed to create offense for his team. During the offseason, the Jays had him working to improve his discipline at the plate, to be more discerning in two-strike counts.
“Going into this offseason, I knew I had to work on certain things on the offensive side and certain things on the defensive side,” said Taylor, who turns 24 in two weeks. “And on the offensive side, I have to shrink the zone. Last year, I had quite a few strikeouts.
“I have the ability to steal 60 bags. I have the ability to score from first base, to do these things on the bases. But if I’m not on the bases, it doesn’t help me, nor does it help my team. So, knowing that I had to shrink the zone and hone in on certain parts of my swing and my game on the offensive side has helped me tremendously this year.”
Taylor struck out roughly once every three at-bats a year ago. This season, it’s down to one in four. His on-base percentage is a solid .348. Defensively, he’s also made significant strides. He played mostly second base earlier in his career, but has been playing left field lately for Buffalo.
“Defensively, he’s done a lot of work to become a really good defender,” Candaele said. “He’s been tireless, doing extra work and glove work and things like that. He’s worked with Danny Solano and Dallas McPherson, our defensive guys, and he’s really, really committed to getting better. His improvement has been vast over the last couple of years, it really has .
“Honestly, he’s gone from maybe a mediocre defender to where it’s getting close to elite.”
That’s pleasing for Taylor to hear. He admits his defense was shaky when he joined the Toronto organization in 2017 (he was drafted in the 10th round by Cleveland in ’16). He was strictly a second baseman at the time and didn’t have the defensive versatility a lot of teams covet.
“I truly believe defense wins games,” he said. “As long as I’m elite on the defensive side, I feel that brings the stress down. The hitting’s going to come. The ups and downs are there. That’s just how the game is. But I don’t want any ups and downs defensively. I take my defense real serious. Over the past couple of years, I’ve put in a whole lot of hours defensively, a whole lot of hours.
”You have to understand that the greatest in the game fail. Mike Trout fails. Shohei Ohtani fails. Vladdy (Guerrero) fails. I always tell myself, ‘The best guys at the highest level struggle’. So why am I going to beat myself up about a little 2-for-10 rut? I know that if I’m not hitting, I’ve got to play major defense.”
Candaele said it’s not easy for a player to shift from the infield to the outfield, as Taylor did this season. He said it’s “quite an art,” and something the people running the show in Toronto value highly. That defensive versatility should help Taylor get elevated to the big leagues one day.
Many Blue Jays fans think Taylor should be up already. Not being on the 40-man roster limits his possibilities. His time will come, whether it’s in Toronto or elsewhere. He’s playing baseball for a living. How can you complain about that?
His father, Jamal Taylor, was a good baseball player in high school, good enough to attract attention of scouts. But his dad gave up the game and went to college instead after having his first child. Samad played different sports as a kid. He loved soccer. But his father encouraged him to pursue baseball, that the opportunities would be greater.
“My dad is my rock,” Salad said. “I talk to him all the time about baseball. I’d never be in the position I am now if it wasn’t for both my parents, Charlotte Johnson and Jamal Taylor. They sacrificed days and days and hours and hours and a lot of money to get me to where I’m at now.
“The only thing I can do to give back to them,” he said, “is work hard and keep my head down and make it. That’s it.”