Why Paxton was optioned

 You’ve likely read by now the Seattle Mariners optioned left-hander James Paxton to Triple-A Tacoma and thereby announcing right-hander Nate Karns will be the final piece to the starting rotation behind Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, Wade Miley and Taijuan Walker. Both Paxton and Karns struggled in Cactus League play, but barring injury it’s been my opinion all along Karns was going to be the choice. Why? Because spring training is the definition of small sample and smart clubs don’t base their decisions solely on performances in March.

Not many will argue Paxton should have been sent down, only a few will argue Mike Montgomery’s presence and status (no options remaining) had anything to do with Paxton. It didn’t, not at all, and here’s why:

The Mariners had three possible moves with Paxton once they decided he wasn’t going to be in the rotation to start the season; option him and use him in Tacoma’s rotation so he’s among the choices when then big club needs a starter; keep him in the majors as a middle-long reliever; send him to the minors to get used to a relief role and bring him back up when applicable. It’s clear the club made the right choice in sending him to Triple-A, regardless of what role they have in mind. But there’s no reason to banish the southpaw to relief work right now, and even if there were, the Mariners made the right call to get Paxton work in Tacoma — as a starter.

There are many, many factors that go into such a decision to change a pitcher’s role. For one, the player has to be open-minded about it or it won’t work. But perhaps most importantly the club has to be convinced the transition will be successful or it’s a waste of time and energy and counterproductive to the entire point of it all, and there are as many reasons to avoid that move as there are to send down the player in the first place.

Paxton does not profile well in 1-2 inning stints. We’ve all seen how and why he struggles to get through six innings — few, if any, were surprised Paxton was optioned; he falls behind in the count due to poor fastball command, has trouble putting away hitters because he’s not Mike Mussina (one of few who commanded the knuckle-curve well) and lacks a consistent, quality third pitch. The lack of a third pitch suggests a possible bullpen fit (lazy analysis). Paxton’s inability to throw strikes consistently suggests absolutely not, and the latter overrides the former, tenfold.

  It would be a different story if it were later in his outings — perhaps after two or three innings — when things typically unravel for the former Kentucky star, but that isn’t the case. To confirm this, I picked out a dozen of Paxton’s starts since last regular season began, including two spring starts this month. He falls behind in counts, allows baserunners and gets high in the pitch count very early, often times in the first inning. March 7 of this year — to pick an outing more recent than not — is very typical of the dozen random outings I pulled. Paxton surrendered two runs on 23 pitches and one mound visit, avoiding further damage with two line outs to end the inning. After a scoreless second versus the bottom of the order, Paxton again struggled to get ahead and stay out of the middle of the plate, yielding two more runs. He ended his three-inning start with just one strikeout in 15 batters faced. How would that work in a relief role? It wouldn’t, not even a little bit. That’s not even a quality long reliever.

Another trend suggests strongly Paxton is not built for relief work; he’s struggled with runners on base. With the bases empty, Paxton has allowed a triple-slash of .234/.269/.345 with a home-run rate of one allowed per 51 official at-bats (excluding BB, SF, SAC, HBP) during parts of three seasons. With runners on base, the on-base-against goes up 85 points, thanks to a soaring walk rate. Paxton’s home-run rate with runners on base — one per 42 official at-bats — is up, too.

Clearly, Paxton is more comfortable working from the wind than from the stretch — though these results, too, leave a lot to be desired — which is far from ideal for a reliever.  He doesn’t have significant issues holding runners, but his effectiveness versus the batter in such situations plummets to far-from-acceptable levels.

Paxton is the quintessential long-levered, below-average athlete that often finds difficulty repeating an effective delivery 100 times per game. Even within innings and at-bats, Paxton’s mechanics will show inconsistencies that contribute to poor control, very poor command and occasionally a tell to the batter when he’s throwing a changeup or curveball.

Working in Tacoma with Rainiers pitching coach Lance Painter and pitching coordinator Rick Waits (M’s big-league pitching coach the last two season) Paxton will be afforded the in-game opportunities to put his work to the test.  When a pitcher makes progress in his side work, he’s only part way there. He has to put it in play with success in games, and with consistency, for any of it to matter. Again, relief outings, even of the 2-3 inning variety often utilized more in the minors than the majors, do not fit Paxton’s needs, and therefore the club’s.

Paxton has displayed enough control and command at times to allow for his plus velocity and flash-60 curveball to get plenty of outs versus big-league lineups. There’s a chance months or years down the road his only hope will be in a relief role. But that time is not now, nor should it be coming anytime in the immediate future. He’s healthy,  in terrific shape, still sits 92-95 mph with life on the four-seam fastball and the curveball induces swings and misses. Ignore the fact he’s 27 years old now, as he begins the 2016 season with 30 starts and 165 innings in the big leagues. Essentially, that’s a player coming off his rookie season. And it’s important to remember he doesn’t need to be Greg Maddux, or even Felix Hernandez in terms of control and command in order to be an effective starting pitcher. Gio Gonzalez is a good example of a quality starter who consistently walks more batters than is even remotely ideal. There’s a useful medium here for Paxton to find.

The M’s haven’t publicly and specifically stated what role Paxton will undertake in Tacoma, it’s easy to read between the lines, per skipper Scott Servais, courtesy The Seattle Times and Bob Condotta:

We all know James Paxton is going to be a big part of our team at some point this season,’’ Servais said. “He has a track record of having very good outings at the big-league level, and we are going to need him, so let’s get him going and get him in a good spot mentally.

This strongly suggests Paxton will indeed start for Tacoma and be one of the first called upon when the Mariners need another starting pitcher — which they will.

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Jason A. Churchill

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