Watching James Paxton labor through his first start of the year against Cleveland sparked a few concerns. He struggled to command his pitches and his velocity wasn’t where we expected it to be. Paxton’s the elite talent that was supposed to raise the overall ceiling of an otherwise unpredictable starting rotation. It was good to see him bounce back in his next two starts, even if they weren’t completely flawless. His command was better, his velocity returned, but there was one more development that was really encouraging.
Since his breakout season in 2016, Paxton’s increased fastball velocity has received the most attention. And with good reason. His fastball has the highest average velocity among all left-handed starting pitchers who have pitched in the majors since 2016. That’s awesome. But I’d argue that Paxton’s success in his last two starts has been driven by the effectiveness of his cutter, not his fastball.
Last season, Paxton’s cutter made up more than 20% of his pitch mix in just one of his starts. He threw it around 10% of the time on average otherwise. In his first start of the season against Cleveland, 14% of his pitches were cutters. In his last two starts, he’s turned to it about a quarter of the time. And it’s been an awesome weapon for him. Opposing batters have whiffed 60% of the time they’ve swung at the pitch! That’s an insane whiff rate and it’s helped him earn 11 strikeouts off the pitch this year, six of them coming yesterday afternoon.
It’s an equal opportunity weapon too. He’s throwing it to both right-handed batters and left-handed batters and neither of them can do anything with it. Last year, he threw his cutter to righties just eight percent of the time even though it’s historically been an effective pitch against them. Perhaps he just wasn’t as confident with his command of the pitch since it’s most effective when he buries it low and in towards the back foot of a right-handed batter. But look at where he located the pitch yesterday.
Those cutters are located exactly where they’re the most effective and the Royals couldn’t touch them.
Not only is Paxton using his cutter more often, the shape of the pitch has changed too. He’s added an inch and a half more drop to the pitch.
If batters do make contact with the pitch, that additional downward action will keep the ball on the ground more often. The year-over-year decline of Paxton’s ground ball rate has been a concern so if this pitch helps him regain some of that skill, that would be a huge boon. And just in case you were wondering, he’s throwing his big bendy curveball around 16% of the time, a little lower than he was last year.
The season is still young and this could be just a two start blip. But with so many pitchers around the league turning away from the fastball and relying on their breaking pitches, it’s certainly interesting to see Paxton utilizing his cutter more often. His fastball will always be impressive but a deadly cutter that generates both whiffs and ground balls could raise his potential ceiling even higher.