James Paxton Misses Out on his Breakout by Karl de Vries December 9, 2014 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.