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Breakout seasons can be a difficult thing to judge. Sometimes they are the effects of a radical change in approach or mechanics and sometimes they are fluky at best and easy to write off. After a breakout 2016 season, the Seattle Mariners have to be thrilled with what they’ve seen from James Paxton even if it’s only three starts into the season.

Things started last year when Paxton was sent to Triple-A to start the year to nail down the mechanical changes that were in process. On June 1st he would debut an electric fastball in the upper 90’s and showed much improved control of the strike zone. The results weren’t great — a 14-6 loss to the San Diego Padres where Paxton yielded eight runs, three earned, over 3 2/3 innings pitched — but we could see that the process was significantly improved. The left-hander did yield two home runs in Petco Park, but he managed to strikeout seven while only walking one.

From that point on Paxton would stick in the major league rotation and and produce a 3.79 ERA and a 2.80 FIP over 121 innings pitched. Also of note was his 8.70 strikeouts and 1.79 walks per nine innings pitched. The results were matching up with the process; he was missing more bats and finding the strike zone more often.

Heading into 2017, the 28-year-old found himself all over ‘breakout player’ lists as the baseball world prepared to see what would follow his breakout season. So far he’s given them plenty to talk about.

The usual April baseball disclaimer applies here. Three starts isn’t rarely indicative of anything significant. But on the surface and from the outside, it looks like Paxton is continuing to build on the foundation he set last year.

In those three starts, the left-hander has put together 21 innings pitched without giving up a single run. A 0.00 ERA is as shiny as it gets but more impressively Paxton is the only pitcher to make three starts this year without giving up a run. The peripheral stats also suggest he’s been dominant as his 1.41 FIP is second only to Noah Syndergaard among pitchers who have three games started. Stretching that sample to two starts and Paxton drops to fourth place in the majors.

So we know that Paxton has been good so far, perhaps one of the best in this short period of time. On Monday he was named the American League player of the week, suggesting the baseball world has taken notice of what he’s done. A week in baseball obviously falls into the small sample size noise category, but when we dig deeper into Paxton’s performance, we can see some factors that likely have influenced the early success and creates the potential for future success as well.

The first thing to look at what Paxton has been throwing. The following chart compares his pitch usage in the majors since 2015.

James Paxton’s Pitch Usage 2015-2017
Season Fastball % Cutter % Knuckle-Curve % Changeup % Two-Seam %
2015 71.9% 2.6% 14.3% 11.1% 0.1%
2016 62.6% 16.8% 13.7% 6.4% 0.6%
2017 64.0% 11.9% 23.1% 1.0% 0.0%

The most noticeable trend is the departure from the changeup and increased reliance on a knuckle-curveball. Paxton had thrown a cutter in the past but began using it more predominantly last season. His average fastball has been a shade under 96 MPH with his cutter coming in at 88 and the curve at 80. Paxton’s managed to mix these pitches effectively and the following results are what he has to show for doing so.

James Paxton’s Pitch Outcomes 2015-2017
Season Line Drive % Ground Ball % Fly Ball % Infield Fly Ball % Soft Contact % Medium Contact % Hard Contact %
2015  17.2% 48.3% 34.4% 8.3% 18.4% 51.9% 29.7%
2016 21.9% 48.1% 30.1% 8.2% 14.1% 52.8% 33.1%
2017 18.8% 39.6% 41.7% 15.0% 18.4% 57.1% 24.5%

The increase in fly balls is interesting, particularly of the infield variety. The overall increase in fly balls could be attributed to Mariner pitches pitching to the strength of the team — outfield defence. But the infield fly balls are often a result of weak contact. So far this year Paxton has reduced the number of balls hit hard by nearly ten percent. On top top that opposing hitters have only made contact 69.7 percent of the time compared to 76.4 percent in 2016. Add an increased swinging strike percentage from 11.7 percent to 4.8 percent and the left-hander’s results stats start to make more sense.

What does this all mean? It’s tough to say. The infield fly balls could definitely be small sample size noise and some point more of the fly balls could find the outfield grass. We also could be seeing some of the effects of an improved outfield defence.

The increase in soft contact and swinging strikes is exactly what we want to see. Those may be some of the best signs that Paxton has in fact taken a step towards stardom. Hitters haven’t been able to adjust to the high heat and spiked curveball to this point. As long as the left-hander continues to command the ball well, he should continue to be a nightmare for opposing hitters.

At 28-years-old Paxton isn’t too old to break out. Consider the small batches of success we’ve seen during his time in the majors and how injuries have undoubtedly slowed his progress. Now that he’s able to command the velocity he’s unlocked, it’s up to the further development of his other offerings to ensure he’s able to consistently perform at this high level.

It wasn’t that long ago Paxton received the No. 2 starter potential label from scouting types. He’s certainly been effective when healthy, too. Maybe the best thing we can say about Paxton right now, since it’s still April, is that the signs are there to suggest that we have been seeing the real thing.

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Tyler Carmont

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