It’s no secret James Paxton has struggled to open 2020. Through 3 starts he’s only thrown 10.1 innings and pitched to a 7.84 ERA. Worse, after pre-season back surgery, everything is down. His fastball velocity is down over 3mph from 95.4 mph to 92.1 mph. And to make it worse, his fastball spin rate is down over 60rpm to just over 2,000 rpm.
However, on Sunday in the godforsaken Trop, there were signs of hope. In 6.1 innings, Paxton gave up 4 hits, 3 runs, and had 11 K. And those numbers are actually worse than how he pitched because he gave up 2 home runs and a double after being brought out for the 7th. Let’s take a look at how he did it Sunday and if there are signs he’s turning a corner.
Velocity has been the name of the game with Paxton this year. His velocity was up slightly against the Rays, averaging 92.3 mph and reaching a max of 94 mph. More importantly, he sustained it deep into the game. His last two fastballs of the game were each 93 mph, which suggests there is hope for the future or at the very least he can maintain that average.
Although the velocity numbers are encouraging, the real improvement is in the spin rate. This chart shows Paxton’s spin rates for each of his pitches by start this year.
Look at the jump in his fastball spin rate yesterday. That is basically what he averaged last season which tells us the ball is coming out better. Throughout the game, batters were swinging through Paxton’s fastball, and the higher spin rate tells us why.
Even more interestingly is the spin rate on Paxton’s changeup and curve compared to previous years. He’s added more than 100 rpm in spin to each of them. For the curve, that gives it a sharper break and for the changeup that gives it less vertical movement (more on this later).
Improved stuff is nice, but locating it is even more important. Here is Paxton’s pitch map from Sunday:
You can see the fastballs almost all up in the zone or above, the cutters low and away to lefties or low and in to righties, and the curveballs all around the zone. Look at how many of those pitches are located near the edge of the strike zone. Statcast has a stat called Edge% which measures what percent of pitches are located near the edge of the zone, which is usually where you want them.
Compared to his previous two starts, that was the biggest change for Paxton yesterday. Take a look:
Everything was improved compared to his last outing. Better stuff + better location = much better result.
A New Changeup?
So this is worth a longer post at some point, but I noticed Paxton’s changeup for the first time. It’s his clear fourth pitch, and last year he never used it more than 5% of the time. Sunday, however, he threw 9 of them, marking the first time in his career that he threw it more than 10% of the time in a game.
The main reason I noticed the changeup is because it was the first time I saw Paxton throw a pitch that noticeably moved from right to left. And in looking at the data, lo and behold, Paxton’s changeup had the most horizontal movement of any start in his career.
The blue line shows the changeup horizontal movement, and you can see how it was higher yesterday than ever before. Additionally, the vertical movement on the changeup is less than before:
Remember how we said the spin rate on the changeup was up to new highs? That is the result. Paxton’s other two off-speed pitches – the curve and cutter – both move in on righties. This changeup moves away from them giving them something else to think about. If Paxton can continue to develop this changeup he may be A-OK even with reduced velocity.