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Tigers vs. Mariners Preview: No, James Paxton probably won’t join Johnny Vander Meer

Paxton is coming off a no-hitter against the Blue Jays, but the Tigers are actually pretty good against lefthanders.

Seattle Mariners v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

If you’re unfamiliar with the name Johnny Vander Meer, get ready to hear it a number of times on Sunday. Mariners lefthander James Paxton threw his first career no-hitter against the Toronto Blue Jays on Tuesday, an incredible accomplishment that earned him congratulations from all over, including his country’s official Twitter account. It wasn’t a flash in the pan either — Paxton has been one of the best starters in baseball (when healthy) for the past few years, and is off to a great start again in 2018.

But as is custom after a no-hitter, Paxton will be compared to Vander Meer for the next several hours. Vander Meer, a pitcher who played from 1937 to 1951, is the only person in MLB history to throw two consecutive no-hitters. He accomplished the feat in June 1938, blanking the Boston Braves and Brooklyn Dodgers in the first of four career All-Star seasons. The two no-nos came at the end of a ridiculous five start stretch for Vander Meer; he went 5-0 with just three runs allowed in 46 innings (!) across those five outings.

Paxton certainly won’t match that efficiency over any five-start stretch, and more than likely won’t join Vander Meer’s exclusive club. Not only is it very difficult to throw one no-hitter (let alone two in a row), but the Tigers are actually pretty good against left-handed pitching. They have a 112 wRC+ against southpaws this year, the fifth-best rate in the majors. And while they are quite banged up at the moment, many of their best performers against lefthanders — Nicholas Castellanos, James McCann, Jose Iglesias, and John Hicks all have a wRC+ of 166 or better — will likely* be in the lineup today.

Unfortunately for Detroit, the M’s are also quite good against lefties. Their 115 wRC+ against southpaws is third-best in baseball, and while Blaine Hardy has been lights out in the minor leagues this year, his major league track record pales in comparison to what Paxton brings to the table.

*Castellanos may be the lone exception after getting hit on the hand on Saturday.

Seattle Mariners (22-16) at Detroit Tigers (16-22)

Time/Place: 1:10 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation site: Lookout Landing
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: LHP James Paxton (2-1, 3.40 ERA) vs. LHP Blaine Hardy (0-0, 2.70 ERA)

Game 39 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Paxton 47.2 34.0 9.6 2.96 1.3
Hardy 3.1 25.0 16.7 7.05 -0.1

Ever since Paxton lowered his arm slot back in 2016, he has been an absolute force on the mound. He has a 3.37 ERA in over 300 innings since that point, but even that doesn’t fully describe how dominant the 29-year-old lefty has become. Among starting pitchers with at least 150 innings pitched since the start of 2016, Paxton’s 2.74 FIP is fourth-lowest — and best in the American League. Only Clayton Kershaw, Noah Syndergaard, and the late Jose Fernandez have lower FIPs during that stretch. Only three AL pitchers have a higher fWAR than Paxton since the start of 2016, and all of them have thrown at least 170 additional innings during that span.

Really, the only thing that has slowed Paxton down have been injuries. He hit the disabled list twice in 2017 with forearm and pectoral strains, respectively. Despite those maladies, Paxton still finished fifth in the AL with 4.6 fWAR across 130 innings. He struck out a career-high 156 hitters while walking just 37. Paxton’s command hasn’t been quite as sharp this year — he’s already more than halfway to last season’s walk total in about one-third of the innings — but his strikeout rate is up to 34 percent, sixth in the majors. Opponents are whiffing on 14.4 percent of the pitches he throws.

Key matchup: Blaine Hardy vs. whatever he was doing down in the minors

If the Tigers were to pick a fifth starter from anywhere in their organization right now, Hardy is certainly the most deserving of the group. He put together a masterful 24 13 innings for Triple-A Toledo in April, holding opponents to a 0.74 ERA with 30 strikeouts to just four walks. These numbers include four excellent starts, and paint the picture of a dominant starter with premium velocity. Hardy certainly doesn’t have that — his fastball has averaged just over 90 miles per hour in his handful of big league innings this year — but he has been honing his secondary pitches, including a slider that has turned into “a reliable weapon” for him. Case in point: Hardy is throwing the slider nearly 50 percent of the time (in a very small sample of innings) compared to just 14 percent last year.


Paxton dominates and the Mariners take the series.

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