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Fewer fastballs, more curves: How less is more for James Paxton

One of the great enigmas this season has been James Paxton. Big Maple came over from Seattle with a lot of promise, but his season so far has left a lot to be desired. In 21 starts this year, he has pitched to a 4.37 FIP and a 3.95 SIERA. Neither of those are bad per se, but we all expected a little more from Paxton.

To understand what has been going on for Paxton this year, we can sum it up in basically one chart which shows his pitch usage by month:

All the way on the left is data from the end of his excellent 2018 campaign, and the months on the right show 2019. Let’s break it down pitch-by-pitch to see what is happening.

Fourseam Fastball

This has long been Paxton’s most frequently used pitch, with consistent usage of over 50%. This year, however, he took it to an extreme throwing it nearly 60% of the time over the first few months of the year. On its own, that would seem to make sense because he has a great fastball and we know batters struggle with high heat. However, there are some signs that this was not the best approach. For starters, Paxton’s fastball this year does not compare well to last year’s.

You can see that compared to the rest of the league, his fastball in 2018 was both faster and had higher spin rate compared to his peers. In actuality, his fastball has not changed, it is more that the rest of the league is catching up. Paxton’s fastball is actually faster this year than last, coming in at 95.5 mph compared to 95.4 mph last year. His spin rate is down from 2283 rpm to 2274 rpm which is barely a difference.

But, with every pitcher featuring a high-spin fastball these days, that makes Paxton’s more commonplace and less exceptional. You can see how over the past couple months, Paxton has gradually decreased his fastball usage to close to 50% of the time which is more in line with his previous seasons and makes a lot more sense for 2019. Even with a great fastball, sometimes less is more.

Cutter

The cutter has been the pitch that people gripe the most about when it comes to Paxton because it seems like it’s the Larry Rothschild special. Guys come over and Larry has them throw a cutter more, and sometimes it doesn’t work out. He upped his cutter usage from 14% to 22%, and has had poor results. Last year, the cutter was Paxton’s best pitch with a pitch value of .70 per 100 pitches according to FanGraphs. Basically, anything above 0 is good and anything negative is bad with that stat. This year, his cutter value is -0.31.

Why did that happen? It is likely that overreliance on both the fastball and cutter has led to diminishing returns. Batters know something between 88-95+ mph is coming, and they can sit on the hard stuff. Paxton recently admitted this to Lindsey Adler of The Athletic when he said, “Guys can kind of cover both of those pitches with the same bat speed.” It’s simple game theory – batters know 80% of the time they are going to get some sort of fastball, so they can just sit on it. That has made Paxton’s off-speed pitches all the more important.

Curveball

Paxton is not known for having a great curve by any means. You can see in the spin rate chart that it has some of the lowest spin of any curve in the game. But it is such an important pitch for Paxton because of the velocity separation.

In his own words: “Throwing a curveball that comes in at 80 to 83 just makes them respect a different pitch speed so they have the thought in the back of their mind that, ‘Oh, this might be slow,’ which can make them late on my fastball.” And that’s the whole point – the pitches help each other out. Even though the curve is not a great pitch, it makes his fastball better because now batters have something else to think about.

In the past month, Paxton has doubled his curveball usage which has helped tremendously. During Monday’s game, I loved watching him even use the curveball as an out pitch to get swinging strikeouts.

In addition to changing the speed, it also changes the batter’s eye level. Paxton tends to throw his fastball up in the zone, and having the curve either at the knees for a called strike or low out of the zone for swings gives batters another eye level to focus on. Keeping hitters uncomfortable is the name of the game, and Paxton needs his curve to do that.

Changeup

The unexpected surprise in researching this article was seeing that Paxton has started throwing a changeup for the first time. He only throws it about 5% of the time, but it is clearly a new development. In fact, he threw 9 of them against the Orioles on Monday. Even in such a limited sample size, the pitch has a FanGraphs value of 4.46 which is fantastic. Hopefully Paxton continues to work in the changeup to give batters one more thing to look at. The tailing movement of a changeup is opposite to both a cutter and a curve which is why it can help Paxton.

Recent results

What makes all of this so exciting is that the changes are working.

Since the calendar flipped to August, Paxton has made three starts, and all of them have been good. He has pitched to a 2.89 ERA and crucially has kept batters off base with a WHIP of .964. His walks are down and his strikeouts have remained in place. That is a recipe for success. Here is a quick summary of the changes he’s made:

  • Decreased fastball usage from 60% to 50%
  • Decreased cutter usage from 22% to 19%
  • Increased curve usage from 14% to 24%
  • Added in new changeup at 4%

The takeaway for me has been the increase in the curve and changeup at the expense of the fourseam fastball. In reality, Paxton has not changed the cutter usage that much because the cutter was never actually the problem. The combination of so many cutters and fastballs was the issue, and going from an 80-20 hard/soft ratio to 70-30 has made all the difference.

You can contact Rohan on Twitter @rohanarcot20

 

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