James Paxton Was Broken — Is He Fixed?

In 2012, the prospect world was down on James Paxton. He was still getting strikeouts based on his curve, but his velocity was down and his control was terrible. Then he got his knee fixed, and suddenly he’s a desired commodity again. His story might remind us: as every baseball manager will tell you, it’s important not to get too high or too low. An even keel provides the best foundation for honest appraisal.

The beginning of 2012 brought Paxton back to Double-A and Jackson in the Southern League and a park that allowed the most home runs in that league (by ten). He didn’t acquit himself well in his first ten starts. Well his first start — 5.2 innings, 10 strikeouts and no walks — was great, but even including that, there were worrisome trends in his numbers. He walked 32 of the first 203 batters he saw, a 15.8% (6.5 BB/9) rate that was unacceptable, really. Even if he still struck out 52 (25.6%, 10.6 K/9).

During that time, the consensus thought began to include a caveat on his future. “Might be a reliever” snuck into his scouting reports. Too much arm action was blamed. Inconsistent mechanics. Some mentioned that his changeup needed work, but the focus was mostly on the velocity and command, which varied greatly from start to start.

Paxton took six weeks off to rest his knee, and the light came on when he came back. He told Bill Mitchell at Baseball America how much the knee meant to his mechanics:

“(The knee problem) kind of messed with the consistency of my finish,” Paxton said. “Once I went on the DL and got on a program and worked on it and strengthened it up a lot, when I came off I felt really good. I felt a lot more consistent and I feel I just got better as the season went on.”

The strikeouts remained (26.1%, 9.7 K/9), and the velocity stabilized in the mid-90s, but the biggest sign for hope was that his control improved greatly (8.7%, 3.3 BB/9). After giving up five home runs in his first ten starts, he only gave up one more in his last 18 starts.

Some time in Triple-A might have taken the luster off of that new shine, but everyone knows at this point to take Pacific Coast League stats with a grain of salt. The fact that his newer level of control held (9.1%, 3.6 BB/9) was enough for optimism. Add in 24 innings of good work in the big leagues, and you’ve got a bonifide sleeper.

Steamer begs to differ. A 4.6 ERA, 1.46 WHIP, built on average-ish strikeouts and a walk every other inning is not the stuff dreams are made of. Were we too down on him when his knee was hurt, or too up on him after he did well in the bigs?

Steamer thinks we should probably ignore those 24 major league innings for now. The problem is that those innings gave us 384 glorious pitches to analyze.

The fastball was as good as advertised — 94+ on both varieties, with more than 60% ground balls on the sinker. The only wrinkle is that Paxton was averaging around 90 on it this spring, and that reports from the PCL say that the velocity was still inconsistent from game to game in Triple-A. Baseball America called his curve the best in the Mariner system, and it came with great whiffs and grounders for a curve. So far, so good.

That work-in-progress changeup? Terrible whiff rate (~7%), but some hope. Half of the changeups put in play were grounders, and at 87 mph, it could be a hard change that gets him grounders. Along with a curve that gets grounders and a sinker, he might be able to keep showing good ground-ball rates like he did in the majors last year (59.1%) and the minors before (46.3%, and consistently above average). It might behoove him to throw the change even harder, if it retains tilt and sink, as Harry Pavlidis has shown in his research on changeups.

How important is that changeup? Maybe not as important as it seems. The shape of Paxton’s curve — minimal horizontal movement (-1 inch) and decent drop (-4 inches) — suggests that it’s a ‘tight curve.’ Tight curves have the smallest platoon split of the curves, showing a small reverse split even. And though we’re splitting the data now, Paxton threw 53 curves to right-handers and the whiff rate only went down from ~17% to ~13%, which is still good for a curve (~11% average). If the pitch begins to show a reverse platoon split, Paxton’s slider might benefit him — he threw 12 of them and got two whiffs, and it was a pitch that he mentioned adding recently.

In any case, a picture should be emerging. Any 25-year-old lefty with a mid-nineties fastball, a strong sinker, and a plus curveball has a shot at fantasy relevance in any league. The cold weather in his home park should help suppress some offense against him, too. Even without much more development, taking the under on his projections seems right — projections don’t care about knee problems. The remaining upside left for James Paxton depends on the changeup or the slider, and — considering that it’s either him or Erasmo Ramirez in the fifth spot in the rotation — whether or not his team wins the Masahiro Tanaka sweepstakes.

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With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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Having watched Paxton very closely in his major league start against the Rays, I’d agree he throws a tight curve. What doesn’t show in the analysis is that he seemed to locate it very consistently, and to furthermore work down in the zone with it. I saw him repeately throw the curve right on the black or just off the zone to righthanders, like a tight slider. It didn’t look like it was being used to get the whiff but rather to tease the groundball, and if the batter swung there wasn’t anything he could do with the pitch. Now, where the curve was being called for was, undoubtedly, decided by the coaching staff and called by the catcher. Over time, I could see that curve being called for over the plate once the coaches get confidence that Paxton will command it, at whcih point it may well earn more whiffs. I found it hard to tell when Paxton was throwing the change, but then again it was only one game. Something else to bear in mind is that James Paxton can easily throw 98+ when he wants to, and did so consistently late in that game and in others, both majors and minors. He needn’t, and shouldn’t, throw that hard consistently, but he can dial it up for the K when he has the count right, an outcome I also think we’ll see more over time.

To me, the most impressive thing about Paxton given his history was how well he repeated his motion, both in that game and what I saw on TV. His motion is a bit complex—and looks EXACTLY like Clayton Kershaw’s actually—but Paxton was very smooth on it. If James has truly gotten his mechanics refined, he’s going to be an absolutely outstanding starting pitcher. He did get better at this over the course of 2013 in the minors, and his improved success correlated exactly with that. We’ll have to see it in the Bigs over several months to be sure, and I’d say not to get too freaked out about spring training results there either. But I am looking forward to Paxton’s 2014 season more than that of any other player in baseball. If he’s fixed, he’s going to surprise a WHOOOOOOOOOLLE lot of folks.