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James Paxton shows a different kind of dominance

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A week after racking up 16 strikeouts, James Paxton threw a no-hitter. His approach in each game was very different.

Seattle Mariners v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

James Paxton has had a week to remember. Last Wednesday, he completely dominated the Oakland Athletics, striking out 16 across seven scoreless innings. Yesterday, Paxton dominated the Toronto Blue Jays, not by striking everyone out, but by pitching a no-hitter—recording just seven strikeouts in his historic outing. For a little perspective, he’s the only pitcher in American League history to record 15+ strikeouts and a no-hitter in consecutive starts (h/t Grant Bronsdon). Paxton showed two different kinds of dominance in these two starts, each showing why he’s elevated himself to be one of the best pitchers in the American League.

Against the Athletics, Paxton relied almost exclusively on his fastball to rack up his sixteen strikeouts. He threw his heater 76% of the time on Wednesday, a mark he’s exceeded in just four other starts in his career. Jeff Sullivan detailed this change in approach on FanGraphs last week. It wasn’t just a ton of fastballs, it was the high fastball that led to a career high 25 whiffs with the pitch. Just look at his pitch chart from that start:

There were a ton of pitches up in the zone and the Athletics couldn’t touch them. Now here’s his pitch chart from his no-hitter yesterday:

Still some high fastballs but there were a lot more pitches down in the zone and he mixed more of his secondary pitches too. Here’s a table showing his pitch usage in these two starts:

Paxton Pitch Usage

Pitch Type Frequency SwStr BIP
Pitch Type Frequency SwStr BIP
5/2 vs Athletics
Fastball 76.0% 31.6% 8.9%
Cutter 11.5% 41.7% 8.3%
Curveball 12.5% 7.7% 15.4%
5/8 vs Blue Jays
Fastball 63.6% 12.7% 15.9%
Cutter 13.1% 15.4% 30.8%
Curveball 23.2% 21.7% 21.7%

In his no-hitter, the fastball was still Paxton’s bread and butter but he also mixed in twice as many curveballs. But the key to his dominance yesterday was the location of those pitches. Against the A’s, Paxton didn’t induce a single ground ball—all ten of the balls they put in play were in the air. That shouldn’t be surprising considering where he was locating his pitches. Against the Blue Jays, more than half of the balls they put in play were on the ground. Almost half of the fly balls they hit stayed in the infield.

Based on the Statcast data, Paxton allowed an expected wOBA of .595 on contact against the Athletics, his highest mark of the season. But he could get away with allowing some hard contact because the A’s have had trouble making contact with high pitches this year. Oakland batters have posted the ninth highest whiff rate on pitches up in the zone this year. To make matters worse, they’re running the fifth lowest contact rate on pitches in the strike zone. Paxton perfectly exploited these two weaknesses to earn his 16 strikeouts, even if it meant allowing a few hard hit balls.

The Blue Jays have had their own problems making contact as they’re running the seventh highest swinging strike rate in the majors. But they’ve also clubbed the most home runs of any team in the majors so far. It wouldn’t be surprising to find out that a big part of his game plan yesterday was to avoid running into the long ball. Keeping his pitches down in the zone and mixing in a few more breaking balls seemed to do the trick. He allowed an expected wOBA of .356 on contact, a mark better than league average but nothing stellar. Like any no-hitter, he needed excellent defense behind him to secure the feat. The most dangerous ball in play by hit probability was Lourdes Gurriel’s flyout to center in the third inning. It was barreled up and had an 88% hit probability but it was hit to the deepest part of the park and Dee Gordon easily tracked it down.

Maybe the most impressive aspect of Paxton’s performance last night was his efficiency. From the fourth inning on, Paxton threw more than five pitches in an at-bat just once. A four-pitch walk to Justin Smoak in the fourth was the last time the Blue Jays would have a runner on base and he was quickly erased by a double play. In the fifth inning, he needed just six pitches. In the eighth and ninth, he needed nine and seven pitches, respectively. That kind of efficiency allowed him to finish the night with just 99 pitches thrown in total, a Maddux.

In his post-game comments, Mike Zunino said that Paxton lost the feel for his fastball early in the game. Through three innings, he had thrown his curveball just four times. Facing the first batter in the fourth inning, he threw a first pitch curveball for a called strike and then finished off Yangervis Solarte with a nasty 0-2 curveball for a swinging strikeout. From then on, the bender was mixed in much more frequently, keeping the Blue Jays off balance the entire night. The most important take away from Zunino’s comments was the way Paxton’s curveball helped him regain the feel for his fastball. In the ninth inning, Paxton threw seven pitches, all fastballs, and all of them were strikes. He even reached back and hit 100 mph in his final at-bat against Josh Donaldson.

We’ve now seen Paxton dominate two lineups in two completely different ways in two consecutive starts. His fastball continues to be the bedrock of his repertoire. I’ve already shown how his cutter has continued to improve earlier this year. Now we’ve seen a start were he’s effectively mixed in his curveball to keep opposing batters off balance. At this point in his career, the sky’s the limit. He’s clearly shown he’s one of the best pitchers in the American League. And this season is just getting started.