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James Pazos: Jerry Dipoto’s dirty little secret

In an offseason of selling upside for stability, James Pazos is an anomaly. Why did the organization of C the Z target this erratic lefty?

MLB: Spring Training-New York Yankees at Philadelphia Phillies
This is what we might call a bit “unorthodox,” James.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

A week or two ago, I wrote the 40 in 40 on James Pazos and I am ashamed to admit that I had some fun with it. While I am content with the assessment of his pitching capabilities and scenic vistas, I realized there is something unique about Pazos that is worth addressing in a more statistically rigorous fashion. Why did Jerry Dipoto target a player whose Controlling of the Zone is less of a stranglehold and more of a suggestion? What is it that James Pazos can do that, in the eyes of the Mariners, made him worth a steady, control-heavy pitcher like Zach Littell? To help get to the bottom of it, I enlisted the help of my friend and colleague Grant Bronsdon.

Let’s start with the most likely scenario: The odds are pretty slim that James Pazos will ever be a major contributor to a major league bullpen.

Sure, he’s put together nice minor league numbers over his five professional seasons, with a 2.30 ERA over 215.1 MiLB innings. And sure, he does a good job striking batters out, with a flashy 10.2 K/9 ratio.

But the guy lacks something pretty essential to being a major league pitcher: control.

I uncovered this Fangraphs post from a couple months ago about projecting a pitcher’s MLB walk rate based off his minor league numbers and his prospect control grade. Essentially, while playing around with numbers and statistics, he was able to create a somewhat-predictive formula to correlate with a prospect’s major league walk rate, based off his AA/AAA numbers. You can see the results below (and again, should you want to see what the methodology is, go to the post itself!).

2015-2016 AA/AAA: 34 BB in 70 IP = 4.37 BB/9

Fangraphs control grade = 45 ~= 3.8 BB/9

Method 1 (averaging these two numbers): 4.08 BB/9

Method 2 (averaging, then slight adjustment): 4.49 BB/9

Method 3 (averaging, but heavier weight on MiLB numbers): 4.52 BB/9

Basically, none of these numbers are anywhere near MLB quality. As a general guide, Fangraphs lists a walk rate of 4.0 BB/9 as “Awful.” And all three of these numbers exceed that threshold!

So, why on Earth does Jerry want this guy? What do the M’s see in Pazos to go against their mantra this offseason of trading upside for stability?

I’m sure he likes that Pazos struck out 13.5 K/9 last year in 23 AAA appearances, a marked increase from his 10.1 K/9 in AAA a year before. Combine that with a bit of a deceptive delivery and you got yourself a solid lefty reliever, who can strike guys out on both sides of the plate. Think a destitute man’s Aroldis Chapman.

Pazos throws hard. Not Chapman hard, of course, but he elevates to 97-98 with consistency. In fact, according to Statcast’s tracking, Pazos’s brief stint in the majors in 2016 put him in impressive company in terms of velocity. Just seven left-handed pitchers reached or exceeded 97 mph with over 10% of their offerings last year. Two (Chapman and Zach Britton) were baseball’s best relievers, while a third (Felipe Rivero) was an excellent bullpen arm as well. One (our own James Paxton) was a starting pitcher who had a breakout season. Two others (Josh Osich and Enny Romero) posted high strikeout rates that were subverted by poor control and too many walks. The last was James Pazos, at just over 12%.

His performance in the majors thus far falls in line with Osich and Romero. Moreover, velocity isn't everything, and even pitchers with absurd speed (hey Arquimedes Caminero) and impressive movement (sup, 2012-13 Brandon League) need to locate in some way, shape, or form. The combination of a mid-to-high 90s sinker and a wipeout slider that graded out as a 60-65 value from most scouting systems makes Pazos a candidate to be more than just a LOOGY. In Chapman's rookie season, his BB/9 exceeded 7.00, and even in 2014-2015 he was still over 4.00 BB/9. Again, Pazos will not be Chapman, even in his 95th percentile of possibility. If he can just throw strikes, however, he's going to get results.

The success in transforming James Paxton in AAA last year may have a lot to do with the acquisition of Pazos. In college, Pazos' delivery involved, at some point in the motion, looking like this:

University of San Diego

Having toned it down a bit, Pazos still has some funk in him, and while that can be deceptive for hitters, it also seems likely to result in repeatability and consistency issues.

It's easy to look at a raw talent and say "if they just get this cleaned up,” but in reality Pazos will have a lot of work to do. After sending Taijuan Walker, Ketel Marte, and Alex Jackson packing in return for steadier players, Pazos seems to be a little indulgence by Dipoto. The chances of a major turnaround are slim.

Pazos is 25, not too old to adjust, but not so young as to be granted a long leash. Paxton’s adjustment took a few months, but the results were more dramatic than anyone could’ve predicted. If Pazos can follow in his footsteps, however, the Mariners bullpen may have an ace in the hole sometime near the All-Star Break.