Paxton’s No-Hitter Was Something Special

Ladies and gentlemen, for the first time in Major League Baseball history, continental North America is fully accounted for on the no-hit front within a single season. The United States of America checked in with its first no-hitter of 2018 on April 18, when the A’s Sean Manaea held the Red Sox hitless in Oakland. Mexico got on the board for the first time last Friday, May 2, when the Dodgers’ Walker Buehler and three relievers no-hit the Padres during the Mexico Series opener in Monterrey. And on Tuesday night, Canada completed the sweep when the Mariners’ James Paxton no-hit the Blue Jays in Toronto.

Paxton, who was born and raised in Ladner, British Columbia, made history by becoming just the second Canadian-born pitcher to throw a no-hitter and the first to do so on Canadian soil. Toronto-born Dick Fowler, pitching for the A’s, no-hit the Browns on September 9, 1945 in Philadelphia. While we’re dispensing with ordinal trivia, it seems appropriate to mention that Paxton is third pitcher to throw a no-hitter at the Rogers Centre (previously the Skydome) after the A’s Dave Stewart (June 29, 1990) and the Tigers’ Justin Verlander (May 7, 2011); no Blue Jays pitcher has ever done it there. Paxton threw the sixth no-hitter in Mariners history, after Randy Johnson (June 2, 1990 against the Tigers), Chris Bosio (April 22, 1993 against the Red Sox), Kevin Millwood and five relievers (June 8, 2012 against the Dodgers), Felix Hernandez (a perfect game on August 15, 2012 against the Rays), and Hisashi Iwakuma (August 12, 2015 against the Orioles).

(While the record books are silent on the matter, Paxton is assumed to be the first pitcher to throw a no-hitter in a season where a bald eagle landed on him.)

Paxton was nearly unhittable the last time he took the mound, striking out 16 in seven shutout innings on May 2 against the A’s. In that contest, during which he threw 105 pitches, the 29-year-old southpaw got 31 swinging strikes, 25 of them via four-seam fastball, many of them at the top of the zone. On Tuesday, he was more efficient, needing just 99 pitches for the entire night, and inducing “only” 15 swings and misses, eight with the four-seamer. He got squeezed a bit at the top of the zone and walked three, but faced just two batters over the minimum thanks to a double play, and threw more than five pitches to just one batter. In only two innings did he use more than 12 pitches, and in four innings, he needed 10 or fewer pitches, including the eighth and ninth. Thus, when he needed to reach back for more gas, it was there. The pitch speed graph from Brooks Baseball tells the story:

Whew. Paxton’s 10 fastest fastballs of the night, ranging from 97.4 mph to 100.2 mph, came from among his final 23 pitches, from the second out of the seventh inning — a lineout to centerfield by Justin Smoak off a 98.5 mph heater — onward. If you need more testimony as to the power of adrenaline, consider that his final three pitches to Josh Donaldson were three of his four fastest of the night, a 98.9 mph swinging strike, a 100.2 mph called strike, and a 99.7 mph strike that Donaldson grounded to third baseman Kyle Seager:

To get to that point, Paxton had to survive some scares. In the third inning, he sandwiched a four-pitch walk to Kendrys Morales and a five-pitch walk to Anthony Alford around a warning track fly ball off the bat of Lourdes Gurriel Jr. to deep center field, where Dee Gordon hauled it in. Via Statcast, Gurriel’s shot had a 102.6 mph exit velocity (one of seven Paxton allowed that were at least 100 mph) and an 88% hit probability, the Jays’ highest of the night of the pitches they put into play (one higher in terms of exit velo and launch angle wound up foul). Paxton recovered to retire Teoscar Hernandez on a foul out and Donaldson on a fielder’s choice, but his 20 pitches that inning set a high for the night.

With one out in the fourth inning, Paxton walked Smoak on four pitches, the third and final free pass he handed out. Four pitches later, he got a room-service grounder from Kevin Pillar to Seager, who started an around-the-horn double play. That began the streak of 16 straight batters retired, which he rode for the rest of the night. Hell, he didn’t even go to a three-ball count from that point onward. In the seventh inning, he needed six pitches to dispatch Pillar on a grounder; that was the only time he went past five pitches in any encounter.

Paxton did need a little help from his friends in the outfield in the eighth inning. First came Russell Martin’s towering drive to left center, where Ben Gamel made a leaping grab in front of the wall:

On the very next pitch, Morales hit a screaming line drive that Gordon slid to catch, apparently while battling the lights:

The Morales drive produced the night’s fastest exit velocity against Paxton (111.6 mph) and the second-highest hit probability (80%), while the Martin fly had just a 48% chance of a hit thanks to its hang time.

Though Paxton has actually showed something of a reverse platoon split over the years, he faced an all-righty Blue Jays lineup, with lefty-swinging Curtis Granderson sitting and three switch-hitters (Morales, Smoak, and Yangervis Solarte) playing, the last two of whom have historically done worse against southpaws. The Jays have been one of the league’s least effective teams against lefties this seasons, the team’s been in a bit of a skid (6-10) after a promising start (13-6), and their collective frame of mind couldn’t have been helped by the arrest of closer Roberto Osuna for a domestic-violence charge that resulted in his being placed on administrative leave by MLB. Add that to a pitcher who’s found an extra gear lately, and you have a recipe for a rough night on their end.

The Mariners gave Paxton a good cushion with which to work, rallying for two runs against starter Marcus Stroman in the third inning, adding two more via a Mike Zunino homer in the fourth, and tacking on a final run in the fifth via three straight singles and a Mitch Haniger sacrifice fly.

That Paxton needed just 99 pitches to complete the no-hitter means that his outing was also a Maddux, to use Jason Lukehart’s wonderful term for any complete game shutout with fewer than 100 pitches. While it was probably commonplace among no-hitters during the pre-pitch-count era, when strikeout totals were lower, since the turn of the millennium, it’s actually become quite rare for one to check off that box, too:

No-Hitter/Maddux Combos Since 2001
Pitcher Date Team Opponent Pitches
Derek Lowe 4/27/02 Red Sox Devil Rays 97
Philip Humber 4/21/12 White Sox Mariners 96
Henderson Alvarez 9/29/13 Marlins Tigers 99
Edinson Volquez 6/3/17 Marlins D-backs 98
James Paxton 5/8/18 Mariners Blue Jays 99
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

That’s five out of 51 no-hitters since the start of the 2001 season that have used 99 pitches or fewer. While it’s easy to feel somewhat jaded about the frequency of these gems, between the Maddux factor and the Canadian factor and the Damn, James Paxton Is on Some Kind of Roll factor, this one really was something special.

We hoped you liked reading Paxton’s No-Hitter Was Something Special by Jay Jaffe!

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Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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Bleacherguy
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Bleacherguy

What a nice piece of writing this was. I watched the game and was familiar with the details. Reading this account brought it all back with accuracy and added context. And the writing just flowed. Really well done.