Mariners In-Depth Analysis: James “Big Maple” Paxton

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Image courtesy of ESPN

Mariners In-Depth Analysis: James “Big Maple” Paxton

Nasty, dominant, unhittable, James Paxton in 2017 brought the adjectives Mariners fans have been eager to hear about the big lefty since his debut, in September 2013. There were times during 2017, especially in July, that Paxton firmly established himself as an elite MLB starter. Right-handed, Left-handed, top of the order or bottom, all succumbed to the Big Lefty.

Want proof? Mike Trout consistently makes pitchers look silly, but 2017 was Paxton’s year and Trout got to witness is first hand. Here is Paxton striking out the premier position player in baseball, Mike Trout, not once, not twice, not three times, but four times in a single game.

It was first time in Trout’s illustrious career that he has struck out four times against a single pitcher in a game. In baseball four strikeouts by a batter in a game will frequently be called a Golden Sombrero and this Sombrero has the name James Paxton stamped on the front of it. When healthy the Mariners had a Cy Young level pitcher to lead the rotation. Paxton brought that excitement and confidence to his outings that Mariners fans have started to miss since Felix Hernandez’s decline.

Injuries have to be brought up once again, however, when talking about Paxton in 2017. Though he set a career high in innings pitched (136), he still fell short off 200 innings and made multiple appearances on the disabled list. Many of his struggles on the mound were in games immediately following his return from the DL. Injuries and Paxton have been very closely associated and widely discussed in his career. This analysis, however, is about the Paxton we saw on the mound in 2017. The fire-balling lefty with the blistering four-seamer, nasty changeup, and see you later knuckle-curve.

Old Reliable-Paxton’s Four-Seamer

Paxton’s bread and butter pitch in 2017, according to Brooks Baseball, was once again the four-seam fastball. He threw the four-seamer on just over fifty-seven percent of his pitches (57.28%). Even with the high usage, Paxton only gave up an astounding .224 Batting Average when using the four-seam fastball in 2017. Obviously as a lefty pitcher, left-handed batters struggled the most against this pitch, barely hitting above .200 (.205 BA), and slugging a measly .227 against the four-seamer.

James Paxton warming up in spring training (photo credit Abraham DeWeese)

What’s amazing about Paxton, is how dominant his four-seamer is against right-handed batters as well. Right-handed hitters could only manage a meager .228 BA against the four-seam fastball. This ability to dominate both right-handed and left-handed hitters with his most used pitch is the foundation that led to such a dominant season for Paxton. The Big Lefty gave up a .308 Batting Average when using the four-seam fastball in 2016. Just that huge drop in Batting Average (.308 to .244) between Paxton’s 2016 and 2017 season, is enough to understand the strides Paxton made in 2017.

One pitch wasn’t the full story for Paxton in 2017, however, and we can see that in the emergence of Paxton’s curveball that shut the door on batters and cemented Paxton’s career year.

James Paxton’s Knuckle Curveball-A Right-Handed Batter’s Worst Nightmare

As was discussed above, James Paxton only gave up a .228 Batting Average to right-handed batters when using his four-seam fastball in 2017. This really highlights Paxton’s ability to dominate batters on both sides of the plate (right-handed batters tend to have an advantage against lefty pitchers), but it doesn’t tell the full story. Paxton gave up a slugging percentage of .362 to right-handed batters with the four-seamer. Although a decent number for a lefty, it was still much higher than the slugging percentage against the same pitch for left-handed batters (.227). So how was Paxton able to dominate right-handed batters like Mike Trout so consistently in 2017? The answer lies in his knuckle curveball.

Paxton threw the curveball for a career high 21.32% of his pitches in 2017. Just with velocity alone one can see how devastating the curveball is for a batter trying to get the timing on Paxton’s fastball. Paxton threw his curve over fifteen mph slower than his four-seamer (95.97 vs. 80.82). When batters swung at his curveball they managed only air on a whopping 40.72 percent of his pitches. When batters were able to make contact against the curveball, its movement helped keep batted balls on the ground. A whopping 67.86% of his curveballs hit in play were groundballs.

This was especially important in a year where the baseball had an extra propensity to fly out of the park when hit in the air. Right-handed batters hit a measly .133 against Paxton’s curveball (left-handed batters hit .278). His dominance against right-handers with the curveball was evident in slugging percentage as well. Right-handed batters slugging percentage dropped from .362 against the four-seamer to only .225 against the curveball. Paxton’s confidence in his curveball due to its repeated success vs. right-handed batters led to him using it on 21% (9% vs. lefties). As such, a fastball reliant pitcher, it was awesome to see Paxton dominate with his curveball as well, especially against right-handed batters, in 2017.

Can the Big Maple Keep Growing?

Image result for maple tree
Will the Big Maple continue to grow?

James Paxton’s health will once again be a major story for the 2018 season, but his dominance when he was on the field in 2017 can’t be overstated enough. He was a joy to watch for Mariners fans and baseball fans as a whole. Earning a Pitcher of the Month award in July where he won six games to etch his name into the Mariners record books, Paxton brought the excitement to the pitching staff that the Mariners have been searching for.

Paxton still mainly relies on his four-seam fastball, but coming of a year where he set a career low in the usage of his four-seamer, it will be interesting to see how he incorporates his secondary and tertiary pitches as well. His curveball was a great complement to his repertoire in 2017, and with the continued development of pitches like his two-seam fastball it is plain to see that Paxton is continuing to work on and improve his pitching ability. Coming off a career year in many categories, Paxton brings much deserved hope to beleaguered Mariners fans, but one can’t help but feel that another level of greatness is still on the horizon. The Big Maple hasn’t quite reached up to the ceiling yet.

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