It would appear that James Paxton is finally getting credit for the body of work he’s produced over the past two years. Jeff Sullivan wrote about this very topic last week, pointing to several metrics that support his claim that James Paxton is one of the best pitchers in baseball. I won’t rewrite his points here; instead, I will show you the many similarities between James Paxton and a relatively unknown pitcher outside Brewers nation, Jimmy Nelson. I don’t mean to imply Nelson is equally as good as Paxton, but I hope by the end of this article there will be a greater acknowledgement of what this pitcher has done this year.
Armed with a fastball that averages 96 mph, a darting 90 mph cutter, and a tight 81 mph knuckle curve, James Paxton is able to generate plenty of swings and misses and weak contact. His 28.8 K%, 7.0 BB%, 46.5 GB%, 5.6 HR/FB% in 2017 has led to a sparkling 2.70 ERA and 2.31 FIP. His 4.2 WAR would rank fifth-best in the MLB among pitchers if he had enough innings to qualify. While Jimmy Nelson doesn’t quite have the stuff of Paxton, his repertoire might sound familiar: a 94.5 mph fastball/sinker, a 89 mph cutter, and a 81 mph knuckle curve. His 27.3 K%, 5.9 BB%, 50.9 GB%, and 13.1 HR/FB% in 2017 has produced a 3.24 ERA and 3.04 FIP. His 4 WAR ranks sixth among qualifying pitchers.
The main differences in their 2017 performance in these metrics appears to be their HR/FB%. Jeff Sullivan addressed James Paxton’s ability to manage contact in his article, and there is evidence that he should be able to maintain a below-average HR/FB%. Over 399.1 innings, Paxton has a career HR/FB% of 8.1. In addition, he currently leads the majors in 2017 in xwOBA on balls in play based on launch angle and exit velocity. While it would be foolish to expect him to keep a 5.6 HR/FB%, a 8.1% might be his norm, circa Clayton Kershaw pre-2017. Despite having a well below-average xwOBA on balls in play, his career ERA is 19 points higher than his career FIP (with an even larger difference this year). I’m not sure if we can hand-wave this difference away, but we’ll accept his FIP as the more accurate measure for this analysis.
Jimmy Nelson, on the other hand, has a history of relatively loud contact. His 13.1 HR/FB% this year isn’t much different than his career 12.4%. Despite this high career rate, his xwOBA on balls in play this year is .343, good for 25th in baseball among 113 starters who have faced at least 250 batters. In addition, his average exit velocity is 85.2 mph, good for 13th-lowest among the same group. It might be that his contact management woes are coming to an end.
Perhaps 2017 will be seen as an out-of-nowhere career year for Jimmy Nelson. Perhaps 2017 will become his norm, and he’ll take his rightful place among the 10-15 best starters in baseball. Either way, he deserves more attention than he’s been given. It’d be a shame if he continues to be denied an All-Star despite producing like one (no pitcher with an equal or higher WAR missed the Midsummer Classic).
Since no posts can be complete with mere words, here’s a link to video of Jimmy Nelson’s most recent start.
My name is Bernie Sanders. You likely know me from my role as a rabbi in the movie My X-Girlfriend's Wedding Reception.