James Paxton Misses Out on his Breakout

By the time James Paxton left in the sixth inning of his second start of 2014, he had done little in his young career to dampen expectations of him becoming a solid major league starter. After all, between the four starts he made in September 2013 and his first two in April, Paxton had gone 5-0 with a 1.75 ERA, an 8.5 K/9 and flashed an especially encouraging ability to generate ground balls, displaying some of the ingredients that comprise the finest fantasy starters.

Unfortunately, a strain of the left latissimus dorsi muscle curtailed his outing on April 8, causing him to miss nearly four months and finish 102nd among starting pitchers, according to Zach Sanders’ end of the season rankings. But upon returning, Paxton was able to redeem what was left of his season, enough so to make 2014 a step forward for the southpaw and perhaps, at the age of 26, setting him up as a breakout candidate for 2015.

We’d prefer a larger sample size than the 74 major league innings (13 starts) Paxton threw this year as a guide going forward, though we don’t need any reservations about reading his batted ball distribution, which stabilizes relatively quickly for ground balls and fly balls. Paxton’s 2.43 GB/FB rate, marked by a strong 54.8 GB% and good for sixth among the 161 starters who pitched at least 70 innings, was very encouraging, and even if his worm-killing ways were to regress over the course of a full season, his ground ball propensity in the minors suggests that we shouldn’t expect this skill to completely disappear.

We can, however, expect some bumps along the way. Considering that Paxton had just a 6.4% home run rate on fly balls — which he allowed at a very low 22.6% clip — it comes as no surprise that he was tagged for only three dingers this season (two of which happened in his pre-DL start on April 8), the fewest among the aforementioned group of starters. Of course, even if Paxton’s luck on fly balls were to come back down to earth, he’ll still be calling Safeco Field home, a place that favors pitchers by almost any measure, and the addition of Austin Jackson in center field improved a defense that, according to several metrics, was adequate this season.

Paxton’s 3.08 ERA was backed by a 3.28 FIP and 3.54 xFIP, thanks largely to a decent 19.5 K% and acceptable 9.6 BB%. He was probably better than his overall line might suggest due to a 14-4 battering at the hands of the Blue Jays on Sept. 22, in which he allowed six walks in 2.2 innings. If one were to be charitable and remove that day from his record, his walk rate would be down to 8.1%, his WHIP would stand at 1.07 and his ERA instead would be 2.14. Sure, taking that start out of the equation might seem like cherry picking, but it was a true outlier: it would be the only time he allowed more than three earned runs or walked more than three in a start all season. Regardless, Paxton bounced back to give the Mariners 5.2 strong innings in a must-win 2-1 victory over the Angels in Game 161, ending his season on a high note and suggesting, perhaps, that he hadn’t completely run out of gas by season’s end.

If Paxton’s game results aren’t a cause for concern, however, the injury to his left lat — a part of the body that is critical to shoulder function — might be. Although he did not tear the muscle, what was supposed to be a few weeks on the sideline morphed into a months-long odyssey, and there’s reason to believe that the changes Paxton made to his delivery in 2013 (including his curveball release point) pose a threat to his health. I’m not qualified in the slightest to speculate on whether Paxton has more DL trips in his future, but it’s worth mentioning that he maintained the same 94 mph average fastball velocity upon returning that he had in his first two appearances, threw his curveball more often than before the injury and didn’t miss a start after coming back.

Despite his age, Paxton still largely poses an unknown quantity to fantasy owners, so it’s difficult to trust him as a rotation stalwart until he puts together a full season. But he’s primed to begin 2015 with a clear spot in the rotation, and the Mariners, who finished 12 games over .500 this year and almost secured a playoff appearance, are bent on improving their offense, which can only help the southpaw grab wins.

The injury risk exists, but so does Paxton’s opportunity to succeed as a member of a competitive team that plays in a pitcher’s park. Put another way, there probably won’t be too many depth starters with Paxton’s upside hanging around the late mid rounds on draft day.

Karl, a journalist living in Washington, D.C., learned about life's disappointments by following the Mets beginning at a young age. His work has appeared in numerous publications, and he has contributed to the 2014 and 2015 editions of The Hardball Times Annual. Follow/harass him on Twitter @Karl_de_Vries.

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7 years ago

I am a tremendous fan of James Paxton. HIs GB rates and low HR rates are absolutely legit. He’s a tall guy with an overhand release point who throws on a steep downward plane with vicious sink starting 94 in the early innings and building to 98 at will in the later innings (really, sat in the stands multiple times and watched him do it). A hard curve down, change-up at times diving down, good cutter. He completely erased ISO from left-handed batters. Even his line drives tended to be pray-and-swing singles, mostly by right-handed batters. An utterly dominant pitcher in terms of limiting damage from contact.

Command is still an issue for James. His stuff has such movement down he misses the zone a lot, so his pitch counts pile up. His walks can climb up in games. He’s not wild, but he can’t count on locating on the corners at this point. As an upside, he doesn’t tend to hang his pitches, and he is if anything tougher with men on base. He was especially good at getting the DP grounder for two rather than the K for one.

Personally, I don’t see him as an injury risk. The Mariners were ultra-conservative in his recovery, in part because they had separately changed Danny Hultzen’s motion the previous year after which Hultzen’s shoulder blew up. Paxton likely could have come back significantly earlier from what was a non-threatening injury in and of itself. It appeared they wanted him 100% symptom free so there was no compensation in his motion which might, by itself risk injury. James’ conditioning appears fine, and he’a a horse in games, so I don’t see him as having a dangerous motion or pitching into fatigue risk.

To me, the questions in a fantasy context on Paxton are Ks and innings. I definitely think that Paxton’s K rate will climb substantially in the future. His secondaries are swing and miss pitches when he locates them, his cutter is nasty, and he throws with great velocity. He has a four-seamer which he has thrown up, but doesn’t necessarily get good location on that either. Because James comes over the top, batters pick up the ball a bit late from him as it comes into view from behind his shoulder. On the other end though he so consistently throws down in the zone hard batters can sit on a pitch there to a degree if not always catch up to his velocity. It’s all about James refining his command with his relatively new motion. I think he will, but it’s going to take reps. And again, because Paxton is somewhat pitch-inefficient, he’s seldom going to pitch more than 6 innings per start at this point, so his counting stats have to be backed down to totals of that kind.

Honestly, I think James Paxton is the best young pitcher in the game with what he has now. But he is likely a tad more valuable in a real world context than in fantasy for 2014.

7 years ago
Reply to  Balthazar

While I agree mostly with you, he’s the same age as Clayton Kershaw. So calling him the “best young pitcher in the game” is ridiculous. Consider Jose Fernandez, Yordano Ventura and Madison Bumgarner are all younger thats a pretty bold statement.