James Paxton delighted Seattle Mariners’ fans and Canadians alike on Tuesday night, pitching a no-hitter against the Toronto Blue Jays at the Rogers Centre. He was the first Canadian-born pitcher to throw a no-hitter since Dick Fowler did so with the Oakland Athletics back in 1945, and he’s also the first Canadian-born pitcher to toss a no-hitter while in Canada. There’s no question the stars aligned on Tuesday to give Paxton his career best pitching performance. Although he only struck out seven of the 27 outs he recorded and walked three, he faced just two batters above the minimum.
Furthermore, his velocity continued to increase as the game went on. In the ninth inning he threw nothing but four-seam fastballs, seven in total, averaging 97.5 mph according to Statcast. His last three fastballs were all above 98 mph and his second to last pitch touched 99.5 mph. Compare that to his first three innings where he didn’t average above 94.7 mph in an inning shows not only the adrenaline effect but also his desire to reach this accomplishment.
Paxton definitely put the league on notice that 2018 is his year after striking out 16 batters in seven scoreless innings in his previous outing on May 2nd. Now with him blanking a potent Blue Jays lineup, who ranked fifth in runs scored per game and ninth in OPS coming into Tuesday, it’s hard to keep him out of the conversation for best pitcher in the American League so far. In fact, out of the eight starts Paxton has made this season, only two have resulted in more than two total runs against him.
I’m sure there are many out there that don’t know much about Paxton, so where did he come from? Paxton started making a name for himself as a major league starter in 2013, pitching four games in a September call-up during his age 24 season. Despite a small sample size, his numbers were right where you want a rookie pitcher to be in his first big league performances. This lead him to make the Mariners’ 25-man roster out of spring training in 2014. He suffered an arm injury during his second start of the season and it put him on the shelf until the beginning of August. Paxton came back and made 11 starts with a .237 batting average against and 46 strikeouts versus 27 walks to close out the season.
He returned in 2015 with a solid April and May before injuring a tendon in his middle finger which put him out of action until his return in September. After a rough spring training to start the 2016 season, Paxton started in Triple-A for two months to iron out his issues. He returned to the Mariners rotation in June and pitched the first four-month stretch of his major league career, finishing with 121 innings of work with a 3.79 ERA while striking out 117 batters versus 24 walks.
In 2017, Paxton started the year off solid with a 1.43 ERA and a batting average against of .190 in six starts. The injury bug bit him again in May after his seventh start, he incurred a left forearm strain. This kept him out of the rotation for nearly a month when he was activated and made his next start on the final day of May. After coming back in May, he put together solid months of June and July but again was shelved in August due to a pectoral strain. Again, Paxton would sit out almost an entire month before returning in the middle of September.
Besides his rough starts in spring training of 2016, the most likely explanation for his assignment to Triple-A at the beginning of that season is that his release points had significant changes. Between 2015 and 2016, Paxton’s release points were lowered by half of a foot vertically and his horizontal release points increased between three-quarters and a foot, as shown below:
Whether these changes were an attempt to curb his injury habits or whether they were looking to maximize his velocity is almost impossible to determine without asking Paxton or his coaches directly. With his four-seam velocity increasing over two miles per hour between 2015 and 2016, while at the same time also making at least 20 starts in both the 2016 and 2017 seasons, it makes one think the changes were more so about his health than his velocity, especially when you factor in that he had averaged around the 95 mph mark each season of his career prior to that.
Throughout his career, much like on Tuesday night, Paxton showed flashes of dominance and confidence. To say he’s been a quality starter in his career is an understatement, because he’s been a reliable starter. The only glaring issue with Paxton is his penchant for injuries even though they’re mostly minor issues that keep him out for only a few weeks. An important part of being a reliable pitcher and taking the next step to being elite is being there every fifth game to put in a good effort and that mostly, if not totally hinges on being healthy throughout the season.
While Paxton experienced the disabled list in every season besides his four start appearance in 2013, if he can remain healthy in 2018 he could finally take that next step from a third starter that fills in the rotation into a number two or possibly even an ace if he can continue his current pace. With a no-hitter in his home country and against the only Canadian major league team no less under his belt, this could be the confidence boost Paxton needs to maximize his performance and his potential.
While the Mariners are on the cusp of contention in the American League West division, the defending champion Houston Astros are likely a lock for the division title. This means the Mariners may end up flipping Paxton for a set of prospects to increase their chances of contending in the future. If the Mariners do decide to shop Paxton, which seems likely at this point, the no-hitter he just tossed will only add to his value and the return the Mariners receive should they choose to move him.
The only thing making teams apprehensive about a deal would be his injury history; however, if he can pitch until the end of July without incident, it’s hard not seeing him as one of the most coveted pieces at the deadline, especially since he’s under team control until 2021. The Mariners could have a high level bargaining chip in their pocket, and in the meantime, Paxton will continue to dazzle the fans of Seattle.