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James Pazos is the ultimate dark horse reliever

A wicked mustache and a wicked fastball should strike fear into any batter he faces.

Texas Rangers v Seattle Mariners Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

There’s no question that the Seattle Mariners have been pleasantly surprising this season. With over 40 wins already, only three teams as of now have more wins than the Mariners do. Being among the best teams in baseball, there have to be some guys contributing a lot to their success. We’ve all heard about James Paxton and Edwin Diaz, plus guys like Jean Segura and Mitch Haniger exploding offensively. However, one guy that isn’t getting any attention at all is James Pazos.

Pazos is relatively unknown to most unless you’re following the Mariners closely. Originally a draft pick by the New York Yankees back in 2012, he was traded following the 2016 season to the Mariners who saw something special in him. Whoever did that scouting deserves a raise as his very solid minor league numbers for his career are now translating into some of the best numbers among major league relievers right now. Currently 4th in ERA among qualified relievers and 27th in SIERA, this shows that he’s pitching in the top echelon of relief pitchers this year. Plus, his mustache gives him something to strike fear into the batters as he comes into the game.

The one big change that Pazos has decided to make besides growing that epic mustache is to throw almost exclusively fastballs, at a 90 percent rate. Pitch Info says it’s a four-seamer and Statcast says it’s a sinker, but for clarity we’ll just refer to it as a fastball. One interesting note is that Statcast says he’s also added a two-seamer this year, throwing it about 10 percent of the time, but no where else do I see any further information to back that up, so we’ll just add that to the sinker information for now. Besides the fastball, his only other offering is a slider thrown 10 percent of the time which is down from 25 percent last season.

Pazos hasn’t struck-out a ton of batters like the prototypical high velocity reliever, but he’s found a way to make that work by limiting his walks and home runs. Batters aren’t swinging and missing at his pitches any less than they were last season overall, those swinging strikes just haven’t turned into strikeouts. Batters are swinging more often at his pitches and are making contact far more often, almost 80 percent of the time which helps explain the lack of strikeouts

Another part of the lack of strikes is caused by the heavy fastball usage plus the fact that the slider whiff rate has been cut in half. This may explain why he’s throwing it far less since his normal strikeout offering is no longer working when it’s needed. It’s particularly strange given he’s increased the movement on it, both horizontally and vertically, but more on that in a moment. There has been a slight change in horizontal release point this year, which would likely affect the location and how batters are seeing the pitch.

Brooks Baseball

It’s hard to say the command isn’t there; he’s tightened up the location so that it’s right on the corner of the strike zone. It’s puzzling because besides the change in whiff rate, the called strikes and in play rate are all within a couple of percentage points of last year. But the answer seems to lie in where he’s locating the pitch with two strikes. While last year he’d really bury the pitch down out of the zone, this season he’s putting it closer to the edge which has doubled the rate at which the ball is put in play with two strikes.

Slider Heatmap Two-Strike Counts

One counter-argument to Pazos’ success is his home run per flyball rate and hard contact rate, both suggest there is some luck involved in what he’s doing this year. I’m not really buying that, though. Sure, a shift in home run per flyball rate would inflate his run measuring metrics, but I don’t believe there will be a huge shift, for one simple reason: Pazos is locating his fastball very well, keeping almost every fastball out of the middle and instead along the edges of the zone. Batters can make hard contact with pitches all they want but if they don’t square it up and get the barrel on it, the chances of hitting a home run are extremely low.

Putting all this together, Pazos has an extremely low walk rate and an incredible strand rate which are two major reasons he’s been so good. Additionally, he is doing a lot of the same things he did last year when he put up solid numbers. Most of his numbers suggest this isn’t luck based but is caused by adjustments as well as better confidence and command on the mound, especially in close games. Even without the same slider he had in previous seasons, Pazos is among the best relievers in baseball right now. If he can find the slider he had last year and continue with the fastball he has this year, his numbers will look even better heading into the All-Star break. Keep an eye on Pazos, as his mustache is something you don’t want to see come out of that Mariners bullpen if your opposing them.

Ron Wolschleger is a pitchaholic and a Contributing Writer for Beyond the Box Score as well as Bless You Boys. You can follow him on Twitter at @FIPmyWHIP.