Tipping Pitches: James Paxton is in Trouble

If James Paxton has suffered through his last three starts in the course of a healthy season, it would be annoying and definitely garner some attention, but I don’t think it’d cause a freakout. Given that they’ve come so closely a DL stint – something Paxton has been unable to avoid throughout his career – there are concerns. Paxton faces the Detroit Tigers tonight in Seattle, a game I’ll be watching. I figured I’d take a look at what’s been happening over these last three starts in comparison to the first seven (which includes his first off the DL on May 28th) and see if we can highlight the issue(s) and find something to keep an eye on tonight.

Velocity is always the go-to the second someone is struggling. We want to see how the velocity is faring as a severe drop may offer more insight than anything else. Paxton came off the DL at 96.5 mph, which was better than his 95.7 season average. That first start was also the best of the bunch (5.3 IP/0 ER). The velo matched the season mark in the second outing off the DL (the first of the ugly run) and was off a half-tick in the third at 95.2 which isn’t an automatic red flag, but at that point it was his lowest mark of the season… until his latest start when he was down to 94.2 mph.

In fact, his entire arsenal was at a season-low during his trip to Texas:

  • Fastball – 94.2 compared to 95.7 average
  • Cutter – 87.3 compared to 88.5 average
  • Curveball – 78.8 compared to 80.1 average

The Rangers ran him up for seven earned on seven hits and three walks in just 3.7 innings of work. He fanned four, but who really cares when the rest of the line looks like that and all of the pitches are down in velo. His 6.6% swinging strike rate in that game was easily a season-low (12% season mark) and the three games off the DL are his three worst SwStr% marks: 7.3%, 8.5%, and 6.6%.

Paxton has also allowed his only three homers of the year in these last three starts (1 in each). All three were center cut fastballs against righties. Two missed the target down-and-away and the other was supposed to be middle-in to Dozier, but instead drifted up and over the heart of the plate. If I had to pinpoint one single issue (outside of health), it would be the fastball to righties. It’s just nowhere near the same pitch:

  • First 7 Starts: .186/.237/.244, 30% K, 7% BB, 0% HR in 169 PA
  • Last 3 Starts: .383/.463/.660, 19% K, 13% BB, 6% HR in 54 PA

It seems to have lost both velocity and movement. He’s not following through consistently leading to misses in the middle of the zone. In the first seven starts, righties couldn’t touch the fastball regardless of where it was in the zone as those numbers suggest, but it was especially effectively down in the zone. He could spot in or away from righties with big results. Not only are the results worse on down-and-in and down-and-away, but he’s missing spots more frequently and ending down the middle.

His percentage of pitches in the lower third vertically and down the middle horizontally is up from 27% in the first seven starts to 36% in these last three. The opposition isn’t missing on those pitches with a .556/.636/1.333 line, 9% K, and 18% BB in 11 plate appearances, including the two aforementioned homers. Look at the heatmap of slugging percentage against righties off the fastball in the first seven versus the last three:

The fastball will no doubt be the key to Paxton getting back on track. Getting ahead with the heater opens up the rest of the arsenal. His 65% first-pitch strike rate is a career-best, but after a season-high 84% against Colorado in that very first start off the DL, he’s been at 64%, 57%, and 52%. I was as hyped as anyone about Paxton coming into the season, but I definitely have some concern after this stretch of games.

The strained left forearm that put him on the DL isn’t something that a pitcher is automatically done with once they return. The Tigers will likely have all righties in the lineup tonight, sitting Alex Avila for James McCann and Victor Martinez (a switch-hitter) on the disabled list. Worse yet from a fantasy standpoint is that another dud would likely tank his value in redraft formats given his injury history and lack of track record as a stud. Watch the fastball location, particularly in relation to where Mike Zunino is calling for it.


Paul is the Editor of Rotographs and contributes to ESPN's Daily Notes. Follow Paul on Twitter @sporer and on Twitch at sporer.

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Bud Smithmember
5 years ago

The results weren’t great, but the velocity was back up to 95.7 last night. So, there’s that at least.

Aaron Judge's Gavel
5 years ago
Reply to  Bud Smith

Here’s something else encouraging: 14.9% SwStr which is his 5th highest in a single game this year, likely aided by a 37% O-Swing which was his 2nd highest mark this season.

40% Hard (compared to 32% season avg) isn’t great, but 27% Soft (vs 16% avg this year) is positive.

5 years ago
Reply to  Bud Smith

He pitched better than his stat line showed last night too. Command was much better and 2 of the runs were because of an error. Buy now if people are skittish.