For the first year in a long time, Seattle’s ace pitcher is not Felix Hernandez; instead, 28-year old left-hander James Paxton is leading the Mariners rotation. Paxton first reached the major leagues in 2013, but injuries limited him to just 74 innings in 2014 and 67 in 2015. Mostly healthy in 2016, early-season ineffectiveness relegated him to the minors until June. After his promotion, Paxton pitched well in 2016 (ERA+ of 108), and has done even better so far in 2017. This season, his ERA of 3.05 (139 ERA+) and 1.145 WHIP put him well ahead of King Felix’s ERA+ of 109, to say nothing of the other very uninspiring pitchers who have started for Seattle so far.
What he throws. Paxton has a straightforward four-pitch repertoire, consisting of a four-seam fastball (“FF”), cutter (“FC”), changeup (“CH”), and knuckle curve (“KC”). His fastball has excellent velocity, averaging 95.6 mph this season with peaks of 98.8 mph; this makes him the seventh-hardest throwing left-hander in the majors (minimum of 250 fastballs) and the only starting pitcher in the top ten (Chris Sale is eleventh).
Pitch usage and trends. Paxton is mainly a fastball pitcher (64.2% of pitches), with his curve picking up most of the rest (21.8%). His rare changeup (3.8%) is almost entirely thrown to right-handed batters; lefties have only seen a single changeup this year – a called strike three to Josh Reddick on April 10. Left-handed batters see more cutters than righties (20.7% vs. 8.6%). When behind in the count, Paxton relies overwhelmingly on his fastball (87.8%): so far this season, he has thrown nothing but fastballs on 3-0 and 3-1 counts.
Looking at Paxton’s pitch usage game to game, we can see that he significantly changed the usage of his secondary pitches over the course of 2016. He started off throwing far more cutters than curves, gradually abandoning his cutter over his last half-dozen starts. His fastball velocity dropped a tick in the same time frame. This season he has picked up where he left off, consistently throwing more curves and fewer cutters, with his fastball velocity in line with his last few games of 2016.
Pitch value. Only Paxton’s rarely-used changeup is below league-average in terms of total bases yielded per 100 pitches, and only the changeup is significantly worse by balls per 100 pitches. His fastball and cutter are particularly good against left-handed batters, while his curve is better against righties. His changeup, taken on its own, is not very good (of the 60 changeups he has thrown so far, six have been hit, including three doubles and a home run), but of course the change probably helps improve his other pitches by its contrast.
Pitch location. Only Paxton’s fastball is consistently thrown in the strike zone. His cutter and curve both tend to end up down and inside to right-handed batters (down and outside to lefties), although they are close enough to the edge of the zone, and inside the zone often enough, that batters can’t simply ignore them. He is also capable of throwing his curve to nearly the center of the zone for a strike to right-handed batters. His changeup to right-handed batters often ends up precisely on the lower edge of the strike zone, but also can either drop well out of the zone, or end up completely within it.
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