The Mariners started James Paxton on Wednesday because they had to put Felix Hernandez on the disabled list with a hurt leg. That’s bad! Paxton proceeded to get lit up, by literally the San Diego Padres. That’s worse! Here, watch Paxton give up an opposite-field dinger to Wil Myers:
Familiar enough. Here’s last year’s Paxton giving up a dinger to Eduardo Escobar:
There’s nothing good about giving up eight runs in less than four innings. It’s even worse when that happens in a pitcher-friendly environment, against a pitcher-friendly opponent. Paxton was so ineffective the Mariners won’t commit to giving him another go, even though Felix is down a few weeks. By results, Wednesday was a nightmare.
By process? By process, it was less nightmarish. There were actually positive signs. Based on everything but the results, Paxton showed promising skills, and the Mariners should want for him to get another opportunity.
Full disclosure: I’ve always liked James Paxton. Even when he’s had issues throwing strikes — and he’s long had issues throwing strikes — I’ve liked the potential in there. I’ve been more interested in Paxton than I’ve been in, say, Taijuan Walker, and though that might make me look silly, and though I’ve written about Paxton a lot of times before, I’m not giving up. I guess that makes him one of my “guys.” We all have our guys. Some of them work out!
Let’s talk a little positivity. Watch those clips up there, if you haven’t. One thing you might immediately notice: Myers hit a fastball at 97. Escobar hit a fastball at 93. Two pitches don’t tell you much, especially when you don’t know about the pitcher’s intent, but this is a real thing. Paxton on Wednesday was throwing hard. He had his best single-game major-league velocity, the fastball averaging 96.6. Only two starters this year have thrown harder: Noah Syndergaard (98.1) and Nathan Eovaldi (97.0). Paxton in the past hung out around 94 – 95. Here are the 10 biggest fastball-velocity improvements from last year, among starters, setting the lowest minimum possible:
|Pitcher||2015 FB||2016 FB||Difference|
So far, so good. Paxton watched his stuff play up, even as it was getting hit. That it was getting hit is a bad thing, and a useful reminder that velocity doesn’t get you anywhere by itself, but we know that stuff is more meaningful than results in any individual appearance. Who wouldn’t love a lefty touching 98?
And then, strikes. By no means was Paxton necessarily throwing quality strikes, but against the Padres he was filling up the zone. That hasn’t exactly been his calling card. Here’s a little comparison, from Baseball Savant. On the right, Paxton’s pitches from Wednesday. On the left, his big-league pitches from the last two years combined.
There was less wildness yesterday. Too many pitches found the middle of the zone, but Paxton was consistently in the zone, where before a good chunk of his pitches were non-competitive. Command wasn’t there, but control was there, and this wasn’t just a one-game fluke. Paxton had been called up from Triple-A, and Baseball-Reference gives us some minor-league statistics. So now let’s dig in. Here’s a plot of Paxton’s nine-game rolling strike-rate averages, going as far back as the 2013 season:
Paxton is at a high point. I know there’s a difference between pitching in Triple-A and pitching in the majors, but even in Triple-A, before, Paxton had trouble getting or staying ahead. The last two years, Paxton struggled to consistently throw three-fifths of his pitches for strikes. Since April 20 of this year, Paxton has thrown two-thirds of his pitches for strikes. Over that 45-inning stretch, Paxton has, to his name, six walks and 52 strikeouts. One of those nine games was a quick relief appearance intended to keep Paxton’s innings down, but still, this is different. Paxton has been pitching cleaner, and, helpfully, there’s even an explanation!
Paxton’s first two starts this year were bad. Bad and inefficient. Paxton wanted help, so he went to the video. He wanted to see what he was doing with his delivery, and he identified something he wanted to smooth out. Refer back again to those two clips above. Did you notice anything besides the velocity? Those fastballs were thrown differently. Here’s a side-by-side of Paxton reaching back:
Look at Paxton’s right arm. Last year, he was reaching well above his head. Now he’s brought that down, to where he’s mostly stretching forward. His shoulders are more level, instead of being so steep. The image on the right looks a little more natural, and the arm path itself has changed on account of this. A side-by-side of Paxton at release:
Paxton used to be more over the top. At release, his elbow would practically be higher than his head. Paxton has brought his arm down, and now he’s more conventional three-quarters. By watching the delivery, you can tell you’re still watching James Paxton, but the motion now is smoother. It seems more like a natural throwing motion, where Paxton isn’t forcing himself to reach to various extreme angles. I can’t promise this is how it works, but my assumption would be this: Paxton’s more natural arm path makes his delivery more efficient, allowing him to throw more strikes, and allowing more force to go into the baseball in the direction of home plate. That’s where the strikes would be coming from, and that would also explain the easier velocity.
That doesn’t mean James Paxton is super good now, not after one big-league start, and certainly not after one big-league start in which he got pummeled. Paxton needs either to trust his secondary stuff, or he needs to locate the fastball better. Not every question has been answered. Yet, while Paxton was embarrassed by the Padres, he had his best-ever velocity, and maybe his best-ever mechanics. So he managed to keep up the strikes he was throwing in Triple-A. I recognize that I’m probably more interested in James Paxton than most, but I still believe you could find yourself more interested within a short amount of time. There’s a real pitcher in here.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.