How the Dodgers can unlock a next-level Paxton

January 29th, 2024

The Dodgers always seem to turn pitchers into gold. Will be the next big Hollywood success story?

The veteran left-hander, who's headed to Los Angeles on a one-year deal, could do more than shore up the back end of the Dodgers rotation. The signs are already there. Paxton wore down late last season -- his first season back from a two-year-long Tommy John surgery recovery -- but for most of the year, he was excellent. Through the first 15 of his 19 starts, Paxton had a 3.36 ERA and 10.1 K/9. Can he post that kind of numbers in L.A. … or even better?

Here are three questions that could determine whether the Dodgers hit it big with Paxton.

1) Can he keep up his velocity?

One of the most encouraging signs when Paxton returned from his lengthy Tommy John surgery recovery was that his fastball velocity was already at his pre-injury level.

Paxton's four-seamer averaged 95.2 mph in 2023, essentially the same as his last three healthy seasons before his forearm issues first materialized: He was at 95.5 mph in 2017 and 95.4 mph in '18 and '19, and those are the years he was at his best as a starter.

But that season average doesn't tell the whole story. Paxton started out humming -- he averaged 96.0 mph in May and stayed at 95-plus through July, even topping out at 98.2 mph. And his four-seamer was showing good life at that time, generating a swing-and-miss rate around 27% over his first couple of months. That's what the Dodgers want: a power-pitching Paxton who can blow hitters away. Plus, when Paxton has a big fastball, his vertical-breaking knuckle-curve works better, too, as a secondary pitch he can mirror off his four-seamer.

But, like we mentioned, he wore down down the stretch, slipping to 94.6 mph in August and 94.1 mph in September before he was shut down with knee inflammation. By the end, Paxton's four-seamer was only generating whiffs 17% of the time.

That velo dip down the stretch is something that's plagued Paxton in the past -- he dipped to 94.4 mph in September 2017, for example, and 94.6 mph in September 2018, after sitting in the 95-96 mph range in the earlier months of those seasons.

And the other thing is, Paxton's velocity didn't come back across the board in 2023. His fastball did, but the problem pitch was his cutter, which dropped to 85.8 mph after averaging 88-89 mph from 2017-19. That version of Paxton had three plus strikeout pitches, all with different velocities and shapes: four-seamer, cutter, curveball. Throwing the cutter harder -- and Paxton wants to throw it harder again -- helps keep it more evenly in between his fastball and knuckle-curve, giving him a more balanced arsenal.

So maintaining Paxton's arm strength will be a key goal the Dodgers will want to address -- especially if they're going to rely on him to pitch in the playoffs after a full season's workload.

2) Will he lean into his sinker and changeup?

One new thing Paxton did in 2023 was start to adjust his repertoire to attack right-handed and left-handed hitters differently. He began tinkering with a sinker as the summer went on, mainly to pound lefties down-and-in, and used his changeup more than he ever did in his peak seasons with the Mariners, giving him a fourth pitch to get righties out.

Paxton used to get hitters out with the same three-pitch, four-seam/cutter/curveball combo no matter who he was facing. But his sinker and changeup are both promising and should open up the strike zone for him, if the Dodgers want him to lean into those pitches.

Paxton's four-seamer has always been able to overpower hitters thanks to its high velocity, especially relative to other left-handed starting pitchers, but it's never been a big "rising" fastball, like someone like Shane McClanahan will throw. What it does have, movement-wise, is a lot of run for a four-seamer, averaging about 12 inches.

Given that fastball movement profile, it makes sense for Paxton to try out a sinker, since he doesn't need it to rise but he does want it to run -- hard and in on the hands of a left-handed hitter, specifically. And that's what Paxton's sinker did last season: It sat at just under 95 mph and averaged over 16 inches of run. That's above average from a stuff perspective, enough for that sinker to be a weapon for Paxton. He even struck out Freddie Freeman with it, and he did it convincingly.

Paxton's changeup has the same type of movement but in the opposite direction: It fades down and away from a righty batter. Paxton's changeup, rarely used in his prime with the Mariners, averaged 84.4 mph with 32 inches of drop and 15 inches of fade when he redeployed it in 2023. That's above-average movement in both directions.

Paxton used to be more of a vertical pitcher -- power fastballs up, power curveballs down. But if he can throw his sinker in to lefties and his changeup away to righties, that should allow him to control the zone horizontally as well as vertically. The Dodgers might be interested in testing that out.

3) Will he start throwing a sweeper?

Of course, there's one other way Paxton could add a horizontal weapon: Embrace the sweeper, MLB's trendiest new slider variety that "sweeps" side to side with big horizontal break, as opposed to the tight, vertical break of a traditional slider.

Why are we asking about whether Paxton might have a new sweeper in 2024? Two reasons.

One, a sweeper would fill a hole in his pitch repertoire: He has no breaking ball with horizontal movement. Paxton's knuckle-curve is purely vertical, averaging 48 inches of drop but under two inches of horizontal break. And if you think of his cutter as functioning like a hard slider, well, that pitch moves even less, with under one inch of horizontal break.

Paxton's only pitches with strong horizontal movement are fastballs (his four-seamer and sinker with their run) or offspeed (his changeup with its fade). If he can learn a sweeper, that seems like the perfect new out pitch to add.

Which brings us to Reason No. 2: He's on the Dodgers now. And the Dodgers are one of the organizations that put the sweeper on the map.

Not only are the Dodgers known for their pitching development, they were one of the pioneers of the sweeper. We were even calling it the "Dodgers slider" a few years ago (as Eno Sarris wrote for The Athletic in October 2021), before the "sweeper" name came in vogue.

Over the last few seasons, the Dodgers have helped pitchers up and down their staff add nasty sweepers -- with their notable successes including another lefty starter reclamation signing, Andrew Heaney.

Not every pitcher needs to start throwing a sweeper just because it's the hot buzzword in pitching these days. But hey, maybe the stars will align for Paxton in L.A., and a new toy will help him look like his old, strikeout-artist self.