February 13, 2015
How to Outperform Your Prospect Status
I have a somewhat embarrassing admission to make. I hate coffee. I have a general distaste for bitter things in general, but coffee is the worst. This is a significant admission since I recently learned that our editor-in-chief was a barista (presumably a barista; I’m not sure if there are other jobs one can have in a Starbucks. Also, are male baristas called baristas? Or baristos? I don’t know Italian, and I spend precious little time in Starbucks, as you might imagine) once upon a time. Some people throw all sorts of cream and sugar and foam and whatever else in there and say it tastes good, but it’s just generally not for me. I just don’t have an appreciation for it.
It is for this reason that my new favorite television show is a bit surprising. Lately I’ve been binge-watching Dangerous Grounds, a show on the Travel Channel featuring Todd Carmichael, a high-end coffee supplier. Carmichael travels the world to source rare coffee beans for his high-end clients, often overcoming diversity in the form of rugged terrain, armed henchmen, or dangerous animals. He does all of this in the name of delicious coffee (if such a thing exists). While I will never appreciate the taste of Carmichael’s coffee beans sourced from high on Tanzanian mountains, I do appreciate his commitment to something that he is truly passionate about. Dangerous Grounds is, for me anyway, a surprisingly good show despite subject matter that I have an overwhelming distaste for.
Sometimes the baseball world lets its prior opinions about a player color expectations going forward. Jacon DeGrom’s breakout season last year was met with suspicion until he proved that he was no longer the pitcher that scouts had written off as a mid-rotation starter a few seasons ago. Corey Kluber went from an organizational guy to one of the best pitchers in baseball in just a couple seasons. These pitchers went from being overlooked to bursting into the spotlight because after a while their performance at the major-league level could no longer be ignored.
Perhaps James Paxton is going to be the next pitcher to move into the spotlight. Paxton was a prospect, but never a top-50 name, and before he reached the majors in 2014 he was sliding down rankings lists, falling off MLB.com's entirely and clinging by his fingertips (at no. 99) to Baseball America's. He has 17 starts to his name in the majors, but those 17 starts have shown glimpses. Why might Paxton’s reality eclipse his previous prospect status? The answer is simple: dedication to his craft and constant improvement.
Let’s start with where Paxton was, just a few short years ago as a prospect. Below are some notes from a scouting report by BP’s Jason Cole from 2013:
High 3/4 arm slot; high front side with long/deep arm in back; excellent arm speed; didn’t consistently finish, particularly on secondary offerings; maintained direction to plate well but release and finish issues caused misses to all four quadrants, inconsistent sharpness of stuff; can get steep downhill from height and arm slot when he does finish; mechanically better from windup; lost tempo and delivery out of stretch; long limbs, disjointed delivery give me questions about present and future repeatability.
Paxton flashes a solid arsenal that includes plus-plus velocity out of his 6-foot-4 frame and long left arm. His command and delivery cause the entire package to play down, though, and I think there’s just too much that needs to come together in order to yield a future big-league starting pitcher. He works up in the zone too often with his fastball, causing it to become hittable even in the mid-90s, and he had trouble showing his off-speed for strikes when needed. He’s a big-league caliber arm with some potential, but the lack of progress with his delivery leads me to believe he’s a hard-throwing middle relief lefty.
OFP: 45; middle relief
Risk Factor: Low
The emphasis above is mine, but the words are all Jason’s, who now works for the Tampa Bay Rays. His report is a good synopsis of how many in the scouting community felt about Paxton toward the end of 2013. Paxton’s future as a starting rotation option was in serious doubt, despite the tall lefty’s memorable stuff.
In 2013 Paxton was approached by some members of the Mariners’ front office with a recommendation for how to tweak his mechanics:
[Paxton] identified a problem and made a change with the help of senior advisors to Jack Zduriencik, Ted Simmons and Pete Vukovich. The pair advised him to get the MLB app on his iPad and take a look at a pitcher that reminded them of him, Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw.
"Watching him one day it just kind of clicked to me that where he was bringing back his arm was different than mine and I started thinking, 'OK, why does he do that?' " Paxton said. "I tried it one day and I realized how much easier it was to get on top of the baseball. I practiced it and practiced it and it came pretty easy. It wasn't hard to change that drop back, just bring it up a little bit. It made it that much easier to repeat and just get on top of the baseball."
The small change compacted his delivery.
"There's not so much movement. It's a shorter path to get my arm up. When I was coming down I was getting almost to my ankle at times. That is a long way to time and try to make it the same every time. But me bringing my hand out so it is just kind of going at my knee, it is an easier path to feel and repeat."
Shannon Drayer - Assist from Cy Young winner key for James Paxton
Paxton needed to make changes to his approach in order to succeed, something that he was able to do. These mechanical tweaks have helped Paxton get the most out of his stuff, specifically through inducing a high groundball rate. Over 98 major-league innings Paxton has generated 56 percent groundballs, nearly two and a half groundballs for every fly ball he has surrendered. The funny thing is that before Paxton’s mechanical changes his groundball rates in the minors were in the mid-40s, reaching 50 percent at Triple-A Tacoma before his call-up to the majors. Clay Davenport noted that groundball outs generally decrease as a pitcher moves up the minors, and Paxton’s significant jump at Triple-A and now the majors would stand out as outliers.
Paxton’s new mechanics might be helping him keep the ball down, something that he has proven quite adept at doing. In fact, 61 percent of the pitches Paxton threw last year were in the bottom two-fifths of the zone. That, however, leads us to another interesting nuance in Paxton’s approach. He only throws pitches to the bottom left portion of the zone from the catcher’s POV.
This is exceedingly interesting because it’s very atypical, especially for a left-handed pitcher. It wouldn’t be uncommon to see a pitcher that focuses on pitching low-and-away to all hitters. This, though, would mean that their pitches would be scattered across the bottom of the zone, with a slight bias toward opposite-handed hitters (because opposing lineups are generally stacked to utilize the platoon advantage). Take Chris Sale for example:
Sale’s location pattern follows what I detailed above. He tends to pitch low and away to hitters regardless of handedness. This means to the catcher’s left for left-handed hitters and to his right for right-handed hitters. This holds true for other lefties—Wei-Yin Chen, David Price, and countless other lefties—as well. Paxton on the other hand pitches to the same locations regardless of batter handedness:
Sixty-seven percent of James Paxton’s pitches are located in the nine portions of the zone on the bottom left of the images above. This, then, raises the question of whether or not Paxton simply can’t pitch to the other zones. That's not the case. In fact, none of Paxton’s pitches technically has glove-side break, as you can see in his pitch movement chart:
His fastball and changeup move roughly seven inches to his arm side compared to a pitch without spin, while his cutter and slider have negligible horizontal movement, but provide a different look from a vertical movement standpoint. Let’s assume for a second that Paxton throws a pitch that is head for a spot at the dead center of the zone. That pitch would either stay directly on that vertical plane, or move toward his arm-side.
The GIF above shows how the vertical plane of Paxton’s fastball or changeup moves to his arm-side upon release. As mentioned previously, his slider and cutter would have minimal change in their vertical plane, and therefore make lousy GIFs.
This movement profile suggests that if Paxton wanted to throw pitches in the bottom right corner of the strike zone, he simply needs to aim there. The pitches would either end up about where he aimed or even further to the catcher’s right. The reality though is that very few pitches thrown by Paxton end up looking like that GIF above. Why? Because he rarely (if ever) throws a pitch right down the middle of the plate upon release.
That means that Paxton’s pitching to the bottom left portion of the zone against both righties and lefties is purposeful, rather than simply a byproduct of not being able to work the other side of the plate. Why might Paxton focus on pounding the bottom left portion of the zone? Well, it’s likely part of what is behind his much-improved groundball rate since revamping his mechanics in 2013. We can examine this in greater details by looking at the batted ball profile of pitches in that zone, and Paxton’s approach does indeed seem to be delivering the desired result:
Is it possible that Paxton took the issues brought up by Cole (well, presumably someone with similar findings inside the Mariners organization) and set up to remedy all of them by emulating Clayton Kershaw’s mechanics while tweaking his approach? Certainly. In fact, there’s reason to believe that this sort of thing is right in Paxton’s wheelhouse:
"He's a sharp guy. He's got great peripheral vision," [Pitching Coach Tom Waits] said. "You can't only focus on one point, you have got to see things that are happening around you. He's always had that. He has always been a deep thinker and his focus is as good as anyone. He put that focus in the right place. That was part of the changes he made.
"He's a very, very focused, determined, hungry pitcher."
Shannon Drayer - Assist from Cy Young winner key for James Paxton
Paxton was worth 0.9 WARP last season, and he’s still yet to throw a full year in the majors. He obviously has areas where he needs to improve, but he’s in a great position to do so. He’s only 26 years old, and PECOTA thinks he’s got a good chance to succeed next year, with a 46 percent breakout rate and a 68 percent improvement rate. Last year he was anywhere from 7 percent to 18 percent better than a league-average pitcher, depending on your xFIP/FIP/ERA preferences. Regardless of your metric of choice, Paxton posted solid numbers.
Lefties with disjointed mechanics, much like television shows about coffee, aren’t exactly overly enticing to me. Once you get past that surface level though—really dig into what it is that makes that thing unique—there might be a hidden gem buried beneath all the bad associations you might have from prior experiences. Reinvention and dedication to one’s craft is a beautiful thing. Sometimes you just need to get past your own biases in order to see it.