James Pazos has looked solid so far this season, while the Mariners bullpen as a whole has been a disaster. Some of the team’s struggles have been bad cluster luck, leading to a 61.7% strand rate that is 29th in the league. Some have been injury issues, and while Tony Zych is back and looking good and Steve Cishek looks close to returning, perhaps recently emerged Rob Whalen saw something through his blindfold as he returned from the DL safe house that could hint at the location of Shae Simmons. Mostly, however, the bullpen has simply done a bad job at pitching. Dan Altavilla lost his command. Casey Fien never had it. Evan Scribner’s HR and health demons caught him after a year incognito. Edwin Díaz has given up three homers in 11.1 IP, compared to just five in 51.2 last year. In last night’s victory, Emilio Pagan gave us reason to quake and curse and rattle our sabers at Scott Servais before the Mariners offense bailed him out. Pazos has been a fairly reliable exception.
Pazos is second on the team among relievers in innings pitched behind Nick “NoNoNoYes!” Vincent and has so far been able to corral his always electric stuff into effective pitches. James pitched in September of 2015 and 2016 for the Yankees, but his 12.0 IP in 2017 exceeds his 8.1 total innings in pinstripes. Perhaps more usefully with such small samples, that breaks down to 38 batters faced as a Yankee and 53 so far as a Mariner. That’s not a lot to work with, but there are a few things we can assert already about Pazos’ mechanics and his approach.
First, his release point has been locked in.
It may not seem like a huge difference, but an inch or two at the point of release becomes inches and even feet by the time it reaches the plate. There are a number of ways this can be impactful. Pazos throws essentially just two pitches: a sinking fastball and a sweeping slider. These two pitches are often paired in pitchers because they move in the exact opposite direction from one another. The closer Pazos gets to releasing both pitches at the same spot, the more deceptive it is for hitters. His 26.4% K-rate (10.50 K/9) bears that strength out.
Moreover, Pazos’ biggest challenge in his career has been control. The Yankees soured on their once-untradeable lefty after a 2016 season in AAA where he ran an appalling 6.26 BB/9. He’s currently still running an egregious walk rate of 11.3% (4.50 BB/9), but it’s the type of awful you can wrap up in a bandage and send back out there because the rest of the player has been so good. The control Pazos has displayed would not invite Jamie Moyer’s envy, but it has improved incrementally in several places such that he’s been an asset. His first pitch strike % is 60.4%, right at league average, over 10% higher than his average from previous years. He’s allowing less contact as well, despite exactly half of his pitches being in the strike zone. His Zone% is about the same as in years past, but just as saying you’re from Seattle when you live in Issaquah isn’t really the same thing as hailing from Rainier Beach, the specificity matters.
The heatmaps of where Pazos has been pitching, again from Baseball Savant:
Pazos is working low and either in or near the zone. Instead of just getting the ball in the strike zone as he has previously, he’s getting it in the parts of the zone his repertoire (two pitches that sink) can thrive. An excellent way to mitigate a lofty walk rate is to avoid allowing extra-base hits, and Pazos has done that with aplomb. His 65.6% groundball rate is the 8th-highest in the league among relievers. That means plenty of double play opportunities, lots of singles instead of doubles, and so far no home runs allowed. Pazos will likely give up a homer at some point, unless he has absorbed Shae Simmons’ powers completely, but his 95-99 mph fastball and 80-82 mph slider are coming at the same release point and giving hitters fits just like this.
When Grant and I looked at this decidedly non-C-the-Z style pitcher this winter, we saw a guy whose mechanics had been slowly progressing into something viable. Considering how far he had to come, we were optimistic that with some time in Tacoma Pazos might find some control by the All-Star break and earn a call-up. Instead, Pazos made the team out of camp, and whether the adjustments he’s made were his own or through the Mariners’ coaching, he’s been a lifesaver for a slowly healing bullpen.