Fantasy Baseball: James Paxton and Aaron Nola are Returning Elite Value in 2018

Paxton and Nola turned in brilliant, ace-level performances on Tuesday night. How much are they exceeding their average draft positions this season?

When someone's asked to name off the best pitchers in baseball, names like Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Chris Sale and Corey Kluber are usually the first that spring to mind. Major League Baseball has some incredible arms. Some have been dominating big league hitters for years while others -- one or multiple-time Cy Young Award winners -- are putting together Hall of Fame careers.

But there are two starters who don't often get thrown into the same best of the best conversation. Some have questioned (and some still do question) their standing as big league aces, top-shelf starters, and anchors of an owner's fantasy staff.

Make no mistake -- James Paxton and Aaron Nola are two of the very best pitchers in baseball and in fantasy. And here's the scary part: they're getting better.

Paxton's No-No

On Tuesday night, Paxton was literally un-hittable, tossing the season's third no-hitter against the Toronto Blue Jays. He was utterly dominant.

You read that right. The lefty's second-to-last pitch of the evening reached 100 miles per hour (mph).

The Seattle Mariners' ace has been outstanding this season. In 8 starts, he's 2-1 with a 3.40 ERA, with 67 strikeouts in 47.2 innings of work. His 67 Ks are fourth-most in baseball and opponents are hitting just .200 against him, resulting in a 1.13 WHIP.

Paxton's last two starts have been especially dominant. In his no-hitter last night, Paxton struck out seven and walked three, but in the two starts prior, he whiffed 16 batters in a 7-inning effort against the Oakland Athletics and struck out 10 in 6 innings against the Cleveland Indians. He became just the eighth pitcher in history to record both a start with at least 16 strikeouts and a no-hitter in the same season, and in his 16-strikeout outing, he racked up 31 swinging strikes to set an MLB-high for any pitcher this season.

Last night, Paxton needed just 15 swings-and-misses to complete the no-hit bid.

Nothing New

In each of the last three seasons, Paxton has dealt with injuries that have robbed him of starts, but when healthy, he's been incredibly effective. In 20 starts in 2016, he went 6-7 with a 3.79 ERA and 2.80 FIP, putting up a 3.5 fWAR season. He was even better last year, making 24 starts (136 innings) and going 12-5 with a 2.98 ERA, 2.61 FIP and 4.5 fWAR.

His strikeouts per nine innings (K/9) have gone up each season he's been a starter, from 7.52 in 2015 to 8.70 in '16 and 10.32 a season ago. This season, he's whiffing 12.65 per nine, the third-best in baseball behind only Scherzer and the newly dominant Gerrit Cole.

Paxton features a mid-90s four-seam fastball, a two-seam cutter that's about eight mph slower, and a curveball that gives him a devastating three-pitch combination against both lefties and righties.

Paxton's fWAR of 1.3 is 9th-best in baseball this season, and the only ding against him is his ability to stay healthy. When he's on the mound, he's simply one of the best in the game today.

Nola's Evolution

Like Paxton, Nola has been good for a few years now, but has emerged as one of the most dominant weapons in the National League in 2018.

Against the San Francisco Giants on Tuesday, Nola featured a mid-90s fastball, a two-seamer with pinpoint control, his signature wipe-out curve and a brand new weapon -- a devastating changeup that helped him strike out 12 batters in 7 innings of work.

Nola's 12 Ks marked a career-high, but interestingly enough, he has been pitching more to contact this season than in years past. That's been his approach, although the addition of the changeup could throw those plans right out the window. Last night, he set a career-high with 26 swings and misses, second only to Paxton's 16 strikeout-performance a week ago.

His opponents' hard contact rate (as calculated by FanGraphs) of 22.5% is second-best in baseball behind only Jose Berrios' 22.4%, as Nola's limited batters to just seven extra-base hits in eight starts this season. No other pitcher who has made eight starts has allowed fewer than 11 to this point.

The 24-year-old's 2.05 ERA is tied for seventh-lowest in the Majors while his 2.55 FIP sits eighth. Top-10 in both categories? Check.

Changing It Up

Nola's changeup has become a devastating pitch, and one he's been using more and more at that.

Coming into the season, Nola had never thrown the pitch more than 15.6% of the time in any of his three previous seasons. In his first four starts of the season, he hadn't thrown the pitch more than 17.5% of the time. However, in his last four, he's thrown it more than 20% of the time, topping out at 29.7% two starts ago.

This is what it's doing to people.

Since June 22 of last year, Nola has pitched 169.2 innings and has a 2.71 ERA. And most of that was accomplished before the arrival of his devastating changeup.

Now, with four outstanding pitches and a fastball routinely in the mid-90s, Nola is officially a number-one, ace-level starter, capable of pitching deep into games and piling up the strikeouts when he so chooses.

Pocket Aces

For fantasy owners, the value is like these guys' games -- off the charts.

In the lead-up to the 2018 campaign, Nola and Paxton were going off the board with the 65th and 79th picks in average drafts (according to National Fantasy Basketball Championship). And, when you break it down to just pitchers, Nola was the 19th (17th among starters) and Paxton was the 23rd (19th among starters) off the board.

By our fantasy baseball rankings, Nola has worked his way up to seventh among all pitchers and the only names ahead of him are mainstays like Scherzer, Kluber and Justin Verlander and breakout guys like Cole, Patrick Corbin and Luis Severino.

Meanwhile, Paxton sits 28th among all pitchers but 21st of all starting pitchers. And he's the 65th-best commodity in fantasy, nearly 15 spots higher than his preseason ADP suggested. Needless to say, that will only climb higher if he continues this flaming-hot streak.

Both Nola and Paxton are 2 of the 15 best pitchers in baseball right now and should be pursued in fantasy baseball with great vigor -- that is, if you can find any owners willing to sell them.