James Paxton is a twenty-seven year old "what if". He's seemingly been that way since he was first called up in 2013, and has just never had the staying power to be anything beyond that. When Brandon Maurer beat all three to the rotation in 2014, we even called it the "Big Four" and that was clever wasn't it? We sort of know what happened to the other three, Tai made the major league roster in full last season and is now a firm part of the Mariners starting rotation. Maurer made it to the 2014 rotation, was moved to the bullpen to throw heat, and then was traded to San Diego for Seth Smith in perhaps my favorite trade of the Jack Z Era. Hultzen, attempting a career reboot as a bullpen arm, hit yet another roadblock when his body wouldn't cooperate. James Paxton, who lost the battle for the fifth spot in the rotation coming out of Spring to Nate Karns, was asked to go to AAA and ply his wares in Tacoma's less-green pastures.
It started out ugly for him, too. Even in Spring the velocity was down and we all sort of did a collective wide-smile emoji but not the one where the corners of your mouth go up but where they stay flat and it's like "I'm terrified but you can't tell I bet." We could all tell. The command was lost, and combined with a velocity dip in a pitcher who is entering his prime baseball years, Paxton seemed like a another notch in the "never developed" belt.
Before his call-up last week, Paxton wasn't exactly mowing down AAA, either. He had a disastrous start to the season, followed by a month or so of near-dominance, ending with his final three starts down in Tacoma all being sorta stinkers. The K/9 was near 10, the BB/9 essentially 2.5. Those are great numbers, really. The FIP was above career average though, at 4.16, and that's certainly not encouraging for a pitcher coming up from AAA. Since his call-up, though, Paxton has done nothing we've ever seen from him before.
Let's first address the full grown, bull elephant in the room. James Paxton is throwing absolute gas. After averaging 96.6 on the fastball in his first outing in San Diego, that actually rose a tick, to 97.6, after his start last night. He threw more than a handful of pitches that touched triple-digits on the radar gun and was spotting said pitches on the corners. You may have even noticed a certain tweet from a certain former member of this community this morning regarding what an "average" fastball at 97.6 means.
More on Number Two on that list later. Back to Paxton, how did he grab three MPH from this season compared to last? It used to be that James would dust 97, maybe even 98 on occasion, but the average on the fastball was 94/95. And that's fast from the left side! Even that is a hell of a fastball from a southpaw. But this new peak in velo, how did that happen? Well, that answer is multiple. A lot of folks will likely cite his change in arm-angle, his (slightly) more simpe mechanics, too. Yet, the answer is potentially more simple. He's fighting his body less. It's clear to the eye that Paxton has dropped probably twenty or so pounds since we saw him in Spring. Even then, back in March, he was more svelte than we'd ever seen him. Trimming down allows coordination between the top and bottom half. He's rotating better, driving harder, and his body is experiencing less resistance the whole way. In last night's start, his average fastball was 99 MPH. James Paxton is throwing an 80-grade fastball. That's currently a fact.
The second major change in Paxton's first two starts has been well, the lack of a change. In the past, his change-up usage was somewhere around 10% of his arsenal. So far, he's only throwing it 3% of the time. It's really being used as a show-me pitch. A slight change of pace in relation to his current out pitch, the cutter.
Throwing his cutter more than he ever has before, James has developed a true devil at 91 MPH with huge horizontal movement. He's now throwing it nearly a quarter of the time, taking time off both his fastball and his change to spin this left-to-right sweeping maelstrom of Ragnarok. Last night, of his 10 K's, five were off the cutter, and five were off that big, fast ball.
When he's dotting the cutter on both sides of the plate, there isn't much chance for batters from either side. It is the evolution of this pitch that I am more comfortable attributing to the slight change in arm angle. As Paxton now comes much more from the 3/4 slot than ever before, a horizontal pitch should increase in bite. Of course, that means nothing if the fastball comes from a different slot. You'll notice in the video above that the fastball actually tracks a similar movement to his cutter. He's hiding it really well. A lot of his strike outs on the fastball are because the batter thinks they're seeing cutter. This combo alone, throwing a heater that averages almost 98 MPH 60% of the time with a cutter around 91 MPH about 25% of the time, is devastating when located.
The next evolution is probably in the curve, a pitch he's throwing mostly to change the eye-level of the batters, but with a serious change in velocity (averaging 82 MPH) it could become a serious weapon. He's throwing it just as often as ever, around 14% of time time. It seems to me, with the slight change in arm angle, this is the pitch that will take the most massaging. Dropping the arm can reduce your vertical movement. Paxton however has such a tall frame that he has more leverage to play with here. Look for the curve in coming starts, this may be the next step.
Ultimately, the radar numbers are sexy, but what we're looking for is quality outings. His first outing was, by all accounts, a major disaster. Last night was, hopefully, what we may see going forward. People will tell you the velocity change isn't that big of a deal. Don't. I can't think of a single development more exciting and important for James. If this heat is for real, he's an absolute weapon. We just, as always, have to be concerned with his health and longevity.
As a final tidbit, Paxton currently has a .444 BABIP against. That's ungodly high and going to come down, hard. His current K/9 is essentially 16. His BB/9 is under 2. He has the fastest average fastball of any lefty starter in baseball. Read that again. James Paxton has the fastest fastball of any lefty starter in all of baseball.