Jeff Taylor made a habit of tracing circles in the dirt infield of the youth church league. While the typical kid would daydream and fool around in the dirt, this tactic allowed his 3-year-old son to stay engaged and know it was his responsibility to make a play if the ball was hit in the circle.
All these years later, that youngster has transformed into one of college baseball’s premier catchers after a standout sophomore season at Virginia Tech that was cut short. Carson Taylor’s development along the way helped fulfill the dream of a lifetime this past Thursday when he was selected in the fourth round of the 2020 MLB Draft by the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“This has been a childhood dream of mine since the age of three when I picked up a baseball,” Taylor said. “To be able to pursue a pro career and especially with the work and the hours and the blood and the sweat and the tears that I’ve put into this sport and the adversity that’s come with it. It’s kind of a culmination of all of that together. It’s something that it’s just that realization of a childhood dream and knowing that I’m one step closer and just continuing to push forward.”
Taylor plans to officially sign as the catcher of the future for the Dodgers. He became the Hokies’ 12th-highest drafted player in program history.
“It’s just a lot of joy and one of those moments that you’re never going to forget, the time you got drafted,” Taylor said. “It’s something I’m going to cherish forever. It’s something I was lucky enough to share with my parents. That also kind of helped with everything because I think that was a special moment for all of us. I can’t tell you how excited I was when it happened and how excited all of us were together and how happy I was. It kind of felt like I was walking on clouds.”
The Duluth, Georgia native was coming off a season as a lodestar for Virginia Tech’s offense where he was unconscious at the plate, posting a slash line of .431/.541/.690. He hit two home runs with 20 RBIs and struck out just five times in 58 at bats as opposed to 12 walks.
Taylor was named a Third Team All-American by Collegiate Baseball.
Virginia Tech head coach John Szefc knew the day when Taylor would get drafted would be coming sooner rather than later after his performance in the final ACC series of the season on the road against Georgia Tech.
“There were at least 20 professional [scouts] there that weekend and Carson was easily the best position player in the ballpark from top to bottom,” Szefc said. “He caught two games, he got big hits from both sides of the plate. He was doing it in his hometown of Atlanta. It didn’t matter what the score was, it didn’t matter the amount of adversity, it just didn’t matter. Things slowed down when he came to the plate. Everyone was going to watch to see what would happen.”
It didn’t always come so easy for Taylor, though. As a freshman, he broke his hamate bone after being hit by a pitch and missed the final month of the season. The rehab process allowed Taylor to return to the game for the final three weeks of the Cape Cod summer season where the best college players go to play in front of numerous scouts.
From there, Taylor went through a major slump with the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox in his first live action since the injury. An 0-for-14 start at the plate could have spelled disaster for just about anyone. Instead, Taylor smashed a three-run homer on his next at bat and continually learned behind Austin Wells, the starting catcher who was taken 28th overall by the New York Yankees in the 2020 MLB Draft.
“I think last year in the Cape is going to help him because he failed last summer for a bit and you saw what the outcome was this spring,” Szefc said. “He’s going to be fine. If he gets in pro ball and goes 3-for-20, it’s not going to matter. He’ll figure it out and he’ll move past it.
“I think it really humbled him a little bit. I said, ‘Give me an idea. Where are you coming out of this whole thing mentally?’ He was like, ‘I watched [Wells] work every day and he showed me what it takes to be a Major Leaguer, what it takes to be a first rounder. I said, ‘OK, that gives me a good feeling that you got something out of those three weeks even though you’re getting completely stuffed every day.’ He was good enough to play, he just wasn’t ready yet because he had taken so much time off to rehab his injury. He hung out with this guy for three weeks, and this guy reminded me what it takes to be a guy on that level.”
If there were any critics from Taylor’s summer in the Cape, they were silenced once he opened the 2020 season at a sizzling pace and finished top 100 across the nation in 13 offensive categories all while commanding a Virginia Tech pitching staff that had a team ERA of 3.05.
“For me going into this year it was all about just trying to take another step forward coming in,” Taylor said. “Trying to just find a way to take myself to the next level coming back. I put high expectations on myself constantly, so I was used to that, but it was more so just trying to control what I can control. Trying to prepare myself as best as possible for the year. Just trying to have as much fun as possible.”
While the offensive numbers undoubtedly turned a few heads, Taylor notes that his biggest strides were behind the plate in his receiving and the way he continued to build a rapport with his pitchers. Still, it’s the drive that’s hidden behind his gravitas that impresses those closest to him the most.
“He’s very driven. About a year ago he said something to me that I’ve only had one guy say before in the 30 years I’ve been coaching,” Szefc said. “He told me that his end goal was to be a Major League Hall of Famer. You don’t really have too many guys say that. Whether he will be or not, I don’t know, but that kind of struck me because I only heard it one other time before. It’s a pretty lofty expectation, but if you’re going to have it, it might as well be a lofty one.”
At this point in his development, Taylor’s innate abilities from both sides of the plate are ahead of his skills defensively as a catcher. However, he is by no means a finished product, which only has the Dodgers’ organization salivating over the potential that can be unlocked.
“I liken him a little bit to Jonathan Lucroy when I had Lucroy in ‘07 at Lafayette because Lucroy’s offense was ahead of his defense, but they weren’t that far apart,” Szefc said. “They were a little bit. Jon got in the Brewers’ system and he got with good developers and all of a sudden his defense was ahead of his offense. It’s hard to have offense ahead of defense at the Major League level because the pitching is so good. It would not surprise me if Carson’s defense caught up to and potentially surpassed his offense as he catches more, as he gets more instruction, and as he’s just spending more time on the game.”
Whatever unfolds in his professional career, Taylor remains the same kid who grew up emulating Chipper Jones’ switch-hitting swing. The kid who feasted on the batting practice of his father, the man who Taylor called the biggest influence in his baseball career. And the kid who now gets to embark on a wild journey with his first love.
“I play [baseball] because I love it,” Taylor said. “I play it because it’s my first love and it’s been the sport I have always enjoyed playing. It’s never been a ‘have to’, it’s been a ‘I get to play.’ It’s a privilege to be able to play the sport, and it’s a privilege to continue to move on to the next level. For me, it’s just continuing to enjoy and continuing to love the sport of baseball. That’s always been the ‘why’ for me.”