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James Paxton has a new trick

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Tonight Big Maple dons a Seattle uniform for the first time since 2018, and it’s hard not to be pretty, pretty hyped.

Kansas City Royals v Seattle Mariners
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Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

James Paxton came on board after the 40 in 40 series was completed for this year, so he didn’t get one, and he also pitched mostly on the backfields in spring training, with only eight Cactus League innings. That means that we didn’t fix our beady little LL eyes too closely on Pax in pre-season, other than marveling over his 17 strikeouts in 8.1 innings.

Obviously Paxton won’t be facing greener-than-green players like San Francisco’s Marco Luciano in the regular season, but expecting the Big Maple to continue to be a strikeout machine isn’t outlandish. Paxton has struck out 30% of batters, or close to it, in each of the past four seasons. And from a brief look at what he was doing in New York in 2020 combined with the dazzling glimpse of him mowing batters down this spring, it’s possible he could even better those numbers this year thanks to a new tool in his arsenal.

Pax established himself as a starter with his fastball-cutter combo. Meanwhile, the knuckle curveball has always been Paxton’s primary off-speed pitch, as well it should be. It’s a true power curve with 12-6 drop that has the ability to make some of the league’s best hitters look downright foolish.

The Mariners, especially former pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre Jr. and Tacoma pitching coach Lance Painter, helped refine a lot of Pax’s offerings: sharpening his cutter, changing his delivery to a more natural arm slot vs. his trebuchet-like overhand delivery from earlier in his career, encouraging him to throw his curve more. But in New York, Paxton started mixing in something he’d mostly moved away from as he graduated from the minors to the pros with Seattle: his changeup.

It sure looks like the Yankees tweaked Paxton’s changeup to induce more vertical drop: 36 inches vs. 25 with the Mariners. In 2020 he also added a little more horizontal break as well. The result is a pitch with significant drop compared to league average (the green line is the changeup):

Baseball Savant

While the curveball remained Pax’s primary secondary pitch in 2019 with the Yankees, in 2020 he was on pace to throw it much more often, throwing it a career-high ~13% of the time. It’s a pitch he uses almost exclusively to right-handed batters, locating it on the far side of the zone to induce weak contact or get ahead in counts, but there’s some swing-and-miss potential too, as we saw in his outing against the Giants, where Paxton featured the changeup more heavily. His 2020 changeups sample is limited to the month of August and the AL East, but you can see a peek here:

Don’t expect to see the changeup a ton tonight against a lefty-heavy White Sox lineup, but it will be interesting to monitor Paxton this season to see if he continues on the 2020 path of featuring the changeup more or reverts more to the pitch mix Mariners fans are used to. If his spring training outings are any indication, we should at least see the occasional new trick from the familiar Big Maple.