This article is a Community Post written by guest contributor Blake Lawatch. If you’re interested in writing a guest piece at Pitcher List, send us an email at Community@PitcherList.com
In the Mariners now god awful minor league system, there was once a time of hope and optimism. The big three as they were called, were supposed to lead the Mariners to the promised land, not-so-shockingly that didn’t happen. Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen, and James Paxton were the future trio of aces that the fans in the pacific northwest were giddy about. Unfortunately, only Paxton remains now. Hultzen had a slew of arm injuries and is all but done with the game, Taijuan was traded to the D-Backs and has since gotten Tommy John surgery, and here we are. Paxton has been dealing with some injuries himself and has taken some time to become the ace everyone has been waiting on. Muscle strains, blisters, and incredibly annoying fingernail issues have prolonged Paxton’s ascension into greatness. In 2016, he took a huge step forward, and now in 2018, he might be having his best career yet. A bald eagle has landed on his shoulder. He pitched a no-hitter in his home country of Canada –– on Canada day nonetheless ––and oh yeah, he’s the ace of a team that could make the playoffs for the first time since 2001.
As pitchers are pitching fewer and fewer innings per start, Paxton is having a work horse type of year. Unfortunately though, he has found himself on the DL at the moment with a back injury. At this point in the season, The Big Maple has pitched the 25 most innings in MLB with 119.1 IP or 6 IP/S, on pace to pitch 184 innings and he’s doing a large portion of it with his Fastball. He has always thrown his Four Seamer a ton, and 2018 is no exception, as he sits at 64%. He’s going deeper into games than most and he’s been successful. The league refuses to let starters go more than five or six innings because of the third time through the order business. The amazing thing is, that is when Paxton, and his Fastball velocity, have been at their best.
The Big Maple is throwing harder and harder in just about every inning. His Fastball is rising nearly 2 MPH from the first inning to the ninth inning and he’s not afraid to use it in high leverage situations. In his only two complete games this year, Paxton has thrown his Fastball fourteen times out of twenty total pitches thrown getting eight called strikes and whiffs for a stellar 40% CSW rate. In his no-hitter specifically, he only threw seven pitches, all Fastballs, and five of them were called or swinging strikes topping out at 99.5 MPH on his 98th pitch of the game! Now, I know what you’re asking me. “How come Paxton’s ERA is so much higher the second time through the order? Your theory is complete garbage.” Nailed it, didn’t I? Well, despite the lowest groundball rate, lowest pull rate, and smallest hard hit % of all the times through the order, His BABIP is a whopping .354. That will regress.
Coming into 2016, Mariner’s fans were beginning to stress a little bit about Paxton, myself included. I was starting to move my figurative pen towards the bust page and write his name down. Word in the baseball world was that he was going to lower his arm angle. To make a long story short, he did, it worked, and he’s legit. He went from over the top to a more 3/4 arm angle.
The three dots on the right side of the plot graph, from left to right, are 2017, 2018, and 2016. This graph shows that since he’s changed his arm angle in 2016, he’s gotten 1 or 2 more inches of horizontal movement on his fastball. As indicated in the table below the graph, Paxton immediately saw productivity in two of his four pitches in 2016 (He had five pitches previously but dropped his Sinker, pun intended). The third and fourth pitch that didn’t get better? His Curveball, which has always been good, and his Changeup, which he hardly throws anymore because it’s not even a little bit good.
Use the Cutter
What’s bizarre about Paxton this season, is he has allowed the highest hard hit rate of his career. He’s already allowed 16 HR’s, 13 of those have come off the Fastball. Previous high in HR’s was nine in 2016 and 2017 each. Fly ball rate is by far the highest of his career at 41.2%. His swinging strike rate is the highest of his career as well at 13.8%. Can you say launch angle revolution? His Fastball is what has taken the majority of the beating, he uses it the majority of the time though too. That, I think needs to change. If you look at Paxton’s velocity chart earlier in the article, you’ll see that he sits mid 90s with his Fastball. That is conveniently the spot where hitters are crushing him.
The xwOBA when he sits at 95 MPH is .332, that is by far the highest mark against him. His Cutter has what has been the most effective and what he needs to throw more. The Cutter only has a 15% usage rate but it’s garnering all of his best numbers; .178 wOBA, 44% chase rate, 47% zone rate, and a 41% whiff rate! The Cutter sits at about about 89 MPH, refer to the chart above, and you see a massively lower xwOBA at about .220. Obviously he throws the Cutter far less, so looking at raw K numbers will not do his Cutter justice, the graph below shows percentage of whiffs for the two pitches we’re talking about. Cutter 41% and Four Seamer sits about 25%.
A big part of the success of his Cutter is location. It breaks into righties, whom are the majority of batters he faces, and away from lefties. He throws it out of the zone 53% of the time and that’s where he’s getting his swings and misses (left) and the few times he misses in the zone are the base hits (right).
While I love Paxton’s Fastball and I think it can be a major weapon, I think he just throws it more than he needs to. You don’t see a lot of starting lefties who are consistently mid 90s and can hit 99 in the 9th inning. His Cutter is getting better results, but I think he just leaves his Four Seamer in the zone a tad too much at 60% and hitters are taking advantage of it. It’s a double edged sword though. The Fastball is what makes that cutter so effective, so to change his pitch usage is a lot easier said than done. If Paxton is able to continue to pump mid 90s Fastballs through six innings, and maybe throw the Cutter some more, he will continue to be a fantasy asset and will be drafted in the top eighty going into 2019.
Blake is 1 of 15 baseball fans in the state of Idaho. He’s a born into Mariners fan and is hopeful to find out what the playoffs are someday.