I’ve said it before. I’ll say it again.
Some of us are quick learners or instantly good at our chosen profession. Most of us, however, were not. Eventually, things came together. But, it took hard work, perseverance, and someone believing in us.
Perhaps, this is about to apply to James Paxton.
Thanks to a seemingly unending string of misfortune, Paxton has started just 50 games in four seasons with the Seattle Mariners. The best way to describe the big southpaw’s major league career since his 2013 debut may be “snake bit.”
At times, Paxton has flashed his outstanding talent. In the end though, something always seems to go wrong. That “something” has been injuries. During Seattle’s 2014 home opener, Paxton left the game and ultimately missed four months thanks to a strained lat muscle.
In 2015, injuries interrupted his season once again. He suffered a strained tendon on the middle finger of his pitching hand. He later tore a fingernail after returning from the disabled list, which ended his year.
Last season was the 27-year-old’s healthiest until a line drive struck his pitching elbow when he was just two outs from the first complete game of his career. On top of that, the fingernail issue surfaced again. Fortunately, he was able to power through his final five starts by using a fake nail and strong adhesive.
That brings us to 2017.
The issue for the Mariners — and their playoff-starved fan base — is whether Paxton should be part of their future or used a trade chip to strengthen their roster. Should Seattle trade their star-crossed hurler?
For some impatient fans, the answer is easy — move on from Paxton.
The rationale of the anxious is understandable. After all, the Mariners came frustratingly close to being a wild card last season. If the club wants to seriously contend next year, they’ll need a stronger rotation. Paxton hasn’t proven himself reliable, yet.
Why stick with James Paxton?
Those wanting to deal Paxton may want to consider how he stacks up against other notable left-handed pitchers after their first 50 starts. The names and their numbers may surprise some of you.
|Paxton vs. Notable Southpaws (First 50 starts)
As you can see, the Mariners enigmatic southpaw is in good company. Based solely on their numbers after 50 starts, which one of the following three pitchers would you prefer in your rotation? James Paxton, Clayton Kershaw, or Jon Lester?
I’m sure the answers will vary. But, the fact that Paxton’s performance through 50 starts is relatively the same — or better — than Kershaw, Hamels, and others listed above should give “trade Paxton” proponents a reason to at least pause and reconsider.
Another element to ponder when weighing Paxton’s future in Seattle — his adjusted mechanics and the improvement that ensued in 2016.
Prospect Insider founder Jason A. Churchill was the first to note last May that — under the tutelage of Tacoma Rainiers pitching coach Lance Painter — the southpaw had altered his arm slot. The result was better velocity, command, and control.
Paxton wouldn’t be the only pitcher mentioned on the preceding table to “figure it out” after getting help from a coach or a mentor. Far from it.
Seattle fans are well aware of the success of Randy Johnson following a conversation with fellow Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan in 1992. Similarly, Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports recently noted Kershaw was a promising — but struggling — pitcher until bullpen catcher Mike Borzello suggested he add a slider to his arsenal in 2009.
Perhaps, Paxton’s work with Painter will have a similar long-term effect on the career of the former Kentucky Wildcat. His 2016 season with the Mariners suggests it’s possible.
A metric that isolates a pitcher’s performance from the supporting cast behind him is fielding independent pitching (FIP), which only utilizes outcomes not involving the defense — strikeouts, walks, hit batters, and home runs allowed. In this category, Paxton was in very good company when compared to pitchers with 20 or more starts in 2016.
|2016 MLB FIP Leaders (20 or more starts)|
I’m not suggesting Paxton is a future Hall of Famer like Johnson or will win the Cy Young award winner like Kershaw, C.C. Sabathia, David Price, Cliff Lee, or Frank Viola. But, what if he falls somewhere between Mark Langston and Andy Pettitte? That would be good, right?
There’s an intangible aspect about Paxton that’s worth discussing along with the data. His willingness to adapt and his desire to improve. When speaking about the lefty in May, Painter told Churchill in May “He’s not afraid to try something. A lot of guys want to stay status quo, but he believes in what he sees.”
Coachability is something that shouldn’t be overlooked by fans when discussing a player. It certainly won’t be by Mariners management. The fact that Paxton heeded Painter’s suggestions — and came to Spring Training 20 pounds lighter this year — hints at a player willing to accept advice and put it good use.
Although last season’s performance and a documented good attitude hint at possible greatness for Paxton, it’s important to note there’s one factor that he can’t overcome without the advantage of a time machine. Of the southpaws I’ve mentioned, he’s the oldest at the 50-start mark.
|Age of Notable Southpaws After First 50 Starts|
|Clayton Kershaw||Frank Viola||Jon Lester||Cliff Lee||Randy Johnson||James Paxton|
|C.C. Sabathia||Cole Hamels||Andy Pettitte||Jamie Moyer|
Obviously, Paxton’s “advanced” age is a result of his injury history during his first four years in the majors. This past season, he started 20 games — the most in his short career. If he had remained relatively healthy since his big league debut, he’d be closer to 75 starts by now.
That brings me back to where I started. Should the Mariners deal Paxton or should they hold on to him?
My answer is keep him.
Yes. Paxton will be an “unknown unknown” entering next season with no more than 20 starts in any season thanks to injuries. But, who exactly could the Mariners get to upgrade their rotation without overpaying in prospects and major league talent?
As Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times pointed out in late July “controllable, young starting pitching with MLB experience, the only real currency in baseball.” Divish attributed that comment to an unnamed front office person and who can argue with that rationale?
Paxton is exactly the kind of player described by that anonymous executive. When healthy, he’s proven he can dominate opposing lineups. Why give up now and sell low?
I suspect that the Mariners feel the same way.
I know I do.