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.