Looking Back: The Brien Taylor Story

Most of us spent the holidays with friends and family, celebrating the New Year and making resolutions we probably won’t keep. Brien Taylor was busy celebrating his 40th birthday the day after Christmas, two decades after the Yankees made him the first overall pick in the 1991 draft.

“I’ve been through 28 drafts,” said Scott Boras back in 2006, “and Brien Taylor, still to this day, is the best high school pitcher I’ve seen in my life.”

Taylor grew up in a trailer in the small North Carolina town of Beaufort, the son of a mason and a crab picker. Scouts flocked to his games at East Carteret High School in droves, all wanting to catch a glimpse of the 6-foot-3 left-hander that unleashed mid-90’s fastballs and five times hit 99 as a senior. The Yankees selected Taylor first overall shortly after he graduated from East Carteret, then made him a $300,000 offer.

Todd Van Poppel, a hard-throwing high school righty from Texas (and another Scott Boras client), signed for a then-draft record $1.02 million as the 14th overall pick one year earlier. The Taylors were being low-balled and they knew it, so they waited despite having life-changing money flashed in front of them. The Yankees eventually raised their offer to $650,000, then $850,000, and then hours before Brien was scheduled to start classes at Louisburg College, they upped their offer to $1.55 million. Taylor was a Yankee, and before he ever threw a professional pitch, Baseball America ranked him as the best prospect in the game.

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.

A few weeks after the end of the season and a few days before his 22nd birthday, an argument between Taylor’s older brother Brenden and his girlfriend’s family turned into a fight, and the best pitching prospect in baseball threw a punch that didn’t connect. Boras initially called the injury a bruise, but the reality of the situation was much more dire. Brien basically ripped his left arm right out of the socket, dislocating his shoulder and tearing both his labrum and capsule.

“I can remember [Dr. Frank Jobe] sitting me down,” recounted Boras back in 2006. “He said, This is one of the worst shoulder injuries I’ve ever seen,’ and I believed it. The way he tore it was unnatural.”

Taylor was on the operating table a week after the fight, and rehab would keep him away from baseball activities for the better part of a year. He returned to the mound in the second half of the 1995 season, making eleven closely monitored starts with the organization’s rookie ball affiliate in the Gulf Coast League. Taylor threw 40 innings, walked 54 batters, hit another ten, and uncorked 16 wild pitches. He also struggled to top 90 with his trademark fastball.

From 1996-1998, Taylor threw a total of 68.2 innings in the lowest levels of the minors, walking 104 batters. He only plunked five hitters during that time, which I’m sure the opponents appreciated. The shoulder injury ruined his once golden arm, and after the 1998 season the Yankees released him. Taylor tried to make a comeback with the Indians in 2000, but that lasted a total of 2.2 innings. At age 30, less than a decade after he’d been drafted, his career was over.

“If I’d been doing things that were stupid and didn’t make any sense, I would have felt a lot worse about it,” said Taylor in 1994, a year after the injury. “I feel that what happened with me is a family thing and I was there for my family. But I don’t feel bad about it for one day because the reason it happened is not because I was being stupid out there.”

Taylor moved back to Beaufort after his career was over, into the house he bought his parents with his bonus money. It sits at the end of Brien Taylor Lane. He is the father of five daughters, and over the last ten years he’s worked as a UPS package handler, a beer distributor, and as a mason with his father at various times. Taylor has rarely spoken to the media since leaving baseball, either politely declining interview requests or having his mother do it for him.

Now more than 20 years after the fact, you can’t help but wonder what could have been. Perhaps Taylor’s pre-injury control problems were too much to overcome and he never would have made it anyway. Maybe he would have led the league in walks a few times before realizing batters couldn’t touch him even when he threw the ball right down the middle, kinda like Randy Johnson. The possibilities are infinite, and Taylor remains arguably the best pitcher none of us ever got to see.

A New Standard
— Tim Kurkjian, Sports Illustrated, Sept. 9th, 1991
No Regrets as Taylor Rebuilds His Fastball — Jack Curry, The NY Times, Sept. 29th, 1994
The arm that changed the Major League draft — Jeff Passan, Yahoo! Sports, June 5th, 2006
Tracking down Brien Taylor — Wayne Coffey, NY Daily News, July 14th, 2006

Special thanks to Jim Callis of Baseball America, who provided the excerpt from the February 1993 issue of their magazine.

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Mike writes about the Yankees at River Ave. Blues and baseball in general at CBS Sports.

40 Responses to “Looking Back: The Brien Taylor Story”

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  1. Excellent article. I remember that draft well and remember the anticipation for his ability to hit the majors. It’s a shame. I wonder if any film exists of his heyday.

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    • Mike Axisa says:

      Thank you. Believe me, I looked for video. No luck.

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    • JimNYC says:

      I was a long-suffering Yankee fan at the time — they were HORRIBLE in 1990; finished in last place as I recall, and had never won a World Series in my lifetime. As a young kid, Taylor was all the hopes of the world wrapped up in a tight package… and then…

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  2. st says:

    awesome article. a great read

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  3. Russ says:

    I remember that time so well ; the yankees were bad and this kid was the future. Like you say Mike, so few of these prospects make it. But it’s a shame the way it happened to this kid. Thanks for capturing the story so effectively.

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  4. Hushpuckena says:

    Ah, for what might have been…

    How well I remember. The consensus was that Taylor was the goods, but this is a cautionary tale of how fine the line can be between success and failure. It’s unfortunate for both Taylor and baseball that he never got to display his talents at the highest level.

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      The only thing Taylor is a cautionary tale for is for other young athletes that choose to get into a brawl. He wasn’t a risky signing. He wasn’t a poor pick. He wasn’t a poor character kid.

      For there to be a cautionary tale there has to be a risky decision from which we are to learn from.

      The cautionary tale is in regards to getting into a fight when you have the most to lose. It’s like wrestling a pig, even if you win you’re still covered in ‘cuss’.

      Young athletes of my generation learned two important lessons from Brien Taylor and Len Bias.

      Taylor is still worth the signing bonus, he’s still worth the pick … and teams continue to give young players big bonuses, etc.

      Even the draft research shows that a mega-talented prep star is worth the first overall pick.

      It’s the keeping the young athlete from getting himself into trouble that’s the tough part.

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      • BlackOps says:

        Have you ever been in a fight defending a family member?

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      • Hushpuckena says:

        If a member of my family were in a fight, the first thing that came to mind wouldn’t be ‘I’ve got this million-dollar shoulder to protect, the hell with ’em’.

        As to keeping young players away from trouble, I agree. They get told from an early age that they’re the greatest thing since sliced bread and usually develop Everest-sized egos. Trying to tell them anything is often an exercise in futility.

        Len Bias? When he was drafted, I was living in Boston and that was a firestorm in the tabloid for months afterwards.

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        1. I’ve been in fights for a lot less than defending a family member.

        It’s also been my experience that not all fights involving family members are due to “defending” that family members. Sometimes it’s just one big mess of people running their mouths leading to a fight, and some of them just happen to be related.

        Sometimes even great players, like say Ray Lewis, have to decide if they want to “defend their family” or “have their buddies backs” or whether they want to be a great athlete. You can’t always do both. I’m not saying it’s easy.

        2. I punched a window with my pitching arm at 16, and still have the 48-stitch scar on the underside of my forearm as a reminder. I am definitely NOT speaking from a position of superiority.

        My point was that drafting Taylor is NOT cautionary tale by definition. There was nothing risky about drafting him or giving him the huge bonus or expecting him to be really good. Those were all based on reasonable logic.

        The risky decision was to get in a fight that may have been unnecessary. I was not under the impression that Taylor was in a situation where he could not have said “C’mon bro, let’s just get the F outta here.”

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  5. Josh says:

    that was really well-written.

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  6. mettle says:

    Just joining the chorus: Captivating subject, well written, excellent article, yaddah yaddah yaddah.

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  7. CircleChange11 says:

    “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,”

    “rare precision” must mean that he is rarely precise. Actually, that’s not using the word correctly. precise and accurate are not the same thing. Anyway …

    I was re-reading the chapter in Between the Numbers and it features Taylor and TVP. That article stated that Taylor was thrown to the ground on his pitching shoulder by a relative/friend and the insinuation was that it might not have been all that accidental.

    I recall Buck Showalter talking about Taylor and BT not having a pickoff move and having no idea how to “spin move” to second because well, “no one in HS reached base”.

    As a side discussion, that Brien Taylor is 40yo is just a crushing blow to my ego. 40? He was a big deal when I was starting college baseball. Damn, I’m 37yo? Crap.

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    • vivalajeter says:

      Yeah, that line jumped out at me too. How’d he walk so many batters if he can locate pitches with rare precision?

      I also wonder if Boras ever saw Gooden in HS. He dominated MLB at 19/20 years old (17.6 WAR in those 2 seasons!) – could Taylor really have been a better HS pitcher, yet he was in A-ball at 20 years old?

      Overall it was a great article though. I especially like the blurb at the end about what he’s been doing these days.

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        The answer to your question is “No, Brien Taylor could not have been better than Dwight Gooden as a prep pitcher.”

        Honestly, I wonder if Taylor even scored higher than Greg Maddux on the HS Scouting report.

        Taylor was tall, left-handed and threw gas.

        Compare to Clayton Kershaw who does all that plus has good non-FB pitches.

        I think a pitcher like Taylor today would be a concern in that having a live fastball is nowhere near enough. He’d be basically a slower version of Aroldis Chapman.

        But, in the early 90s there weren’t really any lefties that threw gas, so it was novel as well. Since then there’s been Randy, Billy, Aroldis, etc.

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      • jwb says:

        Tough to say about Gooden with any degree of certainty. He was the third pitcher – the second prep pitcher – drafted that year. He wasn’t even the #1 pitcher on his HS team until Floyd Youmans moved to California.

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        Rookie Ball
        Gooden (17) – 53BB – 168K (156 IP)
        Youmans (18) – 39BB – 31K (39 IP)

        Single A
        Gooden (18) – 112BB – 300 K (191 IP)
        Youmans (19) – 73BB/117K (134 IP)

        I find it very hard to believe that Youmans was better in HS than Dwight Gooden. Is it possible that Youmans as a senior was better than Gooden as a Junior, or were they the same “year” in HS. Good put up better numbers in every level of pro ball despite being a year younger at the same level.

        Brien Taylor
        Age 20: A+ ball – 66 BB – 187 K (161 IP)

        Dwight Gooden
        Age 20: ML Level – 69 BB – 268 K (276 IP)
        Age 19: ML Level – 73 BB – 276 K (218 IP)

        I just find it, based on evidence, that Dwight Gooden at 17-18 was not a better pitcher than Brien taylor or Floyd Youmans at 17-18.

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        Sorry, last paragraph hard to read. Tying some here and there over the last hour in between tasks. I find it hard to believe that Youmans or Taylor were better than Doc as prep pitchers. They may have had more hype, more whatever, but not better quality.

        It is possible however, that Gooden matured (in all facets) in rookie and A ball, and drastically increased his quality. But, based on my experience, it’s more likely that some other players were given more hype despite having less talent or stuff.

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      • Phantom Stranger says:

        Most scouts at the time believed Taylor would be a lefty version of peak Gooden eventually at the MLB level.

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        I agree with that.

        But as an amateur Gooden had the fastball AND the curveball. Taylor only had the fastball. I think people forget just how good Doc’s deuce was.

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  8. Rockdog says:

    Thanks for the article, Mike. Brien Taylor was the first prospect that I really followed and I can remember the shock and disappointment following the fight. He was viewed as a “can’t miss” prospect who had the potential to perform at the level of Clemens or Gooden (and he was a lefty!). I’ll say this: the early 90s were tough times to be a Yankee fan.

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    • Raf says:

      Only for a few years; the Yanks finished last in 1990, but they were contending by 1993.

      1989-1992, 4 years, really isn’t all that long when you think about it.

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      • cgehring says:

        When you think about it, with all of the comments and contributions from Evan3457 and Raf, this site should be called “Faggraphs.com”

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  9. Bobby Ayala says:

    Great article. Would love to see more “where are they now?” articles of fizzled prospects, and other interesting an undercelebrated baseball figures.

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      Chris Drury, to me, is a very interesting story. America’s wonder boy of the LLWS … chooses to play hockey and makes it to the NHL (and is pretty good too).

      IIRC, Lloyd McClendon had 5 HRs in a LLWS game.

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  10. infernoscurse says:

    you are welcome

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  11. Cody says:

    As many have said before me, this was extremely well done. Thank you.

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  12. John says:

    He was just another guy with a big fastball and no sense of how to actually pitch. The heater would have gotten him to the majors, but he wouldn’t have been a star. His low end would have been to be another Van Poppel. His high end, maybe A.J. Burnett.

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    • BlackOps says:

      Fact? Damn, you’re good.

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    • UJS says:

      All bow to the great John, who can project the future of skinny lefthanded, 20-year-old fireballers in AA ball he’s never even seen. All hail the all-knowing John, who would have cut Sandy Koufax, Randy Johnson, or lesser beings like Ron Guidry, or and who knows how many young lefties who were still learning their crafts at 19 and 20. John knows. Let us hear more from the baseball pitching gospel according to John.

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  13. Crazy Benny says:

    Not sure whether it’s on YouTube, but I first heard of Taylor via 60Minutes…

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  14. Ryan says:

    This is a great read. Thanks Alex. When I was ten and growing up in New York, Taylor was hyped as the savior of the struggling Yankees from the early 90s.

    I read the NY Post story from 2006 and I think it’s worth mentioning that the account of how Taylor hurt his shoulder is from a person who claims to be involved in the fight. Brien Taylor is not the source and his account is not included in the story.

    This doesn’t mean the injury story is false, but it does make it less reliable. It would be nice to have this tale corroborated. It’s possible that since the source was involved in the fight, he may be attempting to deflect blame away from himself or his friends.

    All of this is a footnote, but it’s interesting nonetheless.

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  15. Ryan says:

    Why’d I write Alex?

    Thank you MIKE.

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  16. Joe Pa says:

    So rewriting other people’s content now counts as something interesting? Why not just link tot he Coffey piece and be done with it?

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    • Ryan says:

      Alex added more stats to his peice and examined the effectiveness of Taylor’s minor league performance.

      The NY Daily News piece doesn’t mention much beyond his W/L record, which if you’re reading this site, you probably know isn’t a very effective measurement of performance.

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  17. Eric says:

    How do you blow your arm out (one of the worst the Dr had ever seen) just by throwing a punch? This is speculation of course but chances are he would have destroyed his arm anyway even if the family fight incident hadn’t occured.

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  18. Billy Ball says:

    Perhaps a foolish moment derailed what could have been but Brien has handled it like few could. He blamed no one. He has kept his mouth shut. He raised a family and he has worked. Those times when he had to plead for a few hrs. of work, or take it from an abusive boss, what-could-have-been was always on his shoulder but he has soldiered on. I tip my hat to him and wish him well.

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  19. Vision says:

    Good comment Billy Ball.

    Says a lot about the man.

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  20. cable fixer says:

    great article. sad i missed it the first time, and, of course, sad to see the news today about him as well.

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