At first glance, Masahiro Tanaka and James Paxton have little in common beyond their chosen profession and the team for which they play. Tanaka is Japanese; Paxton is Canadian. Tanaka is right-handed; Paxton is left-handed. Tanaka’s signature pitch is his splitter…or slider; Paxton’s is his fastball. But if we dig a touch deeper, they do have a similarity in careers and expectations.
Tanaka and Paxton are highly talented who don’t necessarily turn in big innings totals, which perhaps warps perceptions about their true talent levels or value to the teams for which they’ve pitched. Additionally, both carry big expectations for 2019, especially with Luis Severino sidelined with shoulder troubles. Paxton carries the additional weight of expectation after being acquired for then top pitching prospect Justus Sheffield. Both also made their debuts this past week against the Baltimore Orioles. Let’s see if they, despite different handedness and different styles had more similarities in their approaches or more differences.
Tanaka relied on a three pitch deployment of four-seamers (24), sliders (23), and splitters (25) to attack the Orioles, tossing 5.2 innings of two run ball (1 earned). He allowed six hits, no walks, and struck out five batters. For the record, Brooks also classified nine curveballs and two sinkers among his Thursday arsenal. Paxton likewise threw 5.2 innings, allowing two runs (one earned), four hits, and one walk while striking out six. His pitch mix was more limited: 59 four seamers, 18 cutters, and 15 knuckle curves.
As pitchers ought to do, each went over 70% strikes with his fastball to set up the other pitches. Paxton, though, got nine whiffs on his fastball alone; Tanaka only had ten for his entire start. In Tanaka’s favor, he got three whiffs on his breaking ball–slider–whereas Paxton had just one on his knuckle curve. These results show themselves in each pitcher’s approach to location. First Tanaka, then Paxton:
While Tanaka stayed mostly down in the zone and to his arm side–inside on righties, outside on lefties–Paxton was more apt to scatter his pitches throughout the zone. Considering the overall stuff of each pitcher, this makes a lot of sense. Tanaka’s fastball averaged around 91-92 per Brooks and Paxton’s averaged a touch over 95. That extra three MPH means Paxton can work up in the zone and at both corners more easily than Tanaka can.
Overall, Tanaka and Paxton faced seven hitters in common and wound up with the same innings and runs totals, while showing strikeout stuff and good control. On most days–like Thursday–Paxton’s line on Saturday would be enough to earn a win. Sadly, that didn’t happen for him, but he pitched well in his debut nonetheless. Despite their differences in approaches and stuff, Paxton and Tanaka turned in similar showings in their season debuts and we should be pleased with both. Hopefully, these starts are a sign of things to come, a jumping off point for even better performances down the road.