Game 148, Mariners at Cardinals
James Paxton vs. Michael Wacha, 4:15pm
Today’s game is another fascinating match-up between top prospects. James Paxton had brilliant stuff but underwhelming results for much of his pro career, alternating stretches of absolute dominance with bouts of wildness, velo loss and a lack of in-game durability. Michael Wacha was seen as a high floor, very low ceiling pick out of college – a safe bet to get through the minors, but with a back-of-the-rotation ceiling. Instead, Wacha laid waste to the minors, using a well-spotted 93mph fastball to get pop ups and Ks, while above-average control and command limited hits and runs allowed. Most of the time, Paxton threw harder (and from the left side, no less) and had the more visually impressive breaking ball, but, and however overrated it is, this is critical: no one could hit Michael Wacha. Thus, not long after Memphis faced Tacoma in May, Wacha moved up to St. Louis for his first start for a division-leading team in the heart of a playoff run.
When I saw him in Tacoma, he was very comfortable pitching up in the strike zone, using a good straight fastball to get whiffs and pop-ups. Thus, I was pretty surprised to see his GB% in his first few appearances with the Cards – he generated a ton of grounders. Over the past few months, that picture’s changed, and at this point Wacha’s got an average to slightly below average GB%, and it’s clearly trending down. That makes perfect sense, given his very low horizontal movement, high vertical movement fastball, which he pairs with a good change-up. He really hasn’t used anything but those two pitches, though he’s thrown a rare curve ball as well. His change has been his best pitch, with whiffs on over 40% of the swings on it, a very high GB% and no HRs allowed. Of course, it’s undoubtedly effective because of the way it interacts with his non-sinking four-seamer, which gets a decent whiff rate on its own. Lefties and righties alike have been flummoxed by his change, and his fastball’s shown some odd splits thus far. In Tacoma, he dominated righties with high heat, but righties have hit it fairly well in MLB. It’s lefties who for whatever reason aren’t seeing the ball out of his hand, at least in his first tour of the league.
James Paxton showed a similarly odd GB% in his MLB debut last week. A guy with below average GB% through the minors and a very over-the-top, rising fastball suddenly got 12 ground balls. As I mentioned afterwards, the movement on his fastball looked completely different than it did in the spring (or in the Arizona Fall League). Given the measurement issues at both Peoria and Safeco, I’m looking forward to this game to really figure out just how much Paxton’s fastball movement’s changed. Given the GB% spike in his last month in Tacoma and his GB-heavy debut, I don’t think 100% of this is pitch fx calibration. I think Paxton’s altered his FB during the year – the question is how much, and how he’s done it. The M’s don’t have a lot to look forward to this last month, but Paxton’s progress is one potential bright spot. Not only was his velocity much higher than people thought (especially those who last saw him in March, when an exhausted Paxton was averaging 90mph on the fastball), it moved differently, and he had the stamina to get through six good innings. If he can sustain that again, it goes a long way towards settling the debate about his big league role (with many having him ticketed to the bullpen), while really helping the M’s pitching depth next year – and thus, at the margins, altering the offseason plan a bit.
1: Miller, SS
2: Gutierrez, RF
3: Seager, 3B
4: Morales, 1B
5: Ibanez, LF
6: Saunders, CF
7: Zunino, C
8: Ackley, 2B
9: Paxton, SP