Paxton and Walker key to M’s season

 There’s an ongoing phenomena in the Pacific Northwest that hasn’t occurred in quite some time.  The Seattle Mariners are fielding a competitive roster in August that has a realistic chance at the postseason.

Sure, the Mariners were within a win of a play-in game for a wildcard berth in 2014, but this time it’s different. This time, the team is much deeper and more resilient roster thanks to the work of first-year general manager Jerry Dipoto.

Understandably, some fans will be slow to jump aboard the “Mariners Express.” After all, the club that hasn’t reached the postseason since 2001. To make matters even worse, they’ve posted a winning record in just three of their last ten seasons. That’s demoralizing.

Still, this version of the Mariners is for real. At least real enough to be in the thick of the wild card race and within six games of the division lead with 38 games remaining. Perhaps, this is the year meaningful October baseball returns to Seattle.

With the club playing so well lately — a 15-6 win-loss record in August — and an allegedly “easy” schedule ahead of them, the Mariners are starting to receive attention from national sports media outlets.

Naturally, pundits are focusing on the team’s highlight reel stars — Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, Kyle Seager, Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, and Edwin Diaz. The re-emergence of Mike Zunino is likely to catch the attention of some analysts too.

Certainly, the Mariners can’t win without these stars. Yet, the club’s chances of snapping the longest postseason drought in the majors will most likely hinge on the arms of two less-mentioned players — James Paxton and Taijuan Walker. Without their help, Seattle may have to wait another year to see playoff baseball at the corner of Edgar and Dave.

That’s why tonight’s arrival of Walker from Class-AAA Tacoma against the New York Yankees and Paxton’s return from the disabled list (DL) on Thursday could set the tone for the remainder of the season.

Any further absence or ineffectiveness from either Paxton or Walker would hamstring the chances of Mariners popping champagne corks in October. Poor performances from both pitchers between now and the end of September would certainly dash the club’s postseason aspirations.

Why are these young guns key to Seattle’s season? Simply put, they’re better than their replacements. Ariel Miranda and Cody Martin have done commendable jobs as fill-ins. But, they’re not as talented as Paxton and Walker and aren’t capable of going deep into games. Right now, getting through the sixth inning is essential.

Look at the following table, borrowed and updated from Prospect Insider’s third-quarter report on the rotation and bullpen. Starting pitchers going deeper into games helps balance the workload for the bullpen and helps deliver results in the win-loss column.

Impact of Rotation on Seattle’s Record
Month Starts of +6 IP RA/Gm *
Total W-L
W-L (+4 RS)
W-L (3 or fewer RS)
IP/GS
April 17 3.3 13-10 9-1 4-9 6.2
May 18 4.1 17-11 16-4 1-7 5.8
June 13 5.3 10-18 10-7 0-11 5.4
July 14 4.8  12-12  8-2 3-10 5.8
August 12 3.7  15-6  10-3  5-3 6.2
 * RA/Gm includes runs permitted by bullpen

When the Mariners were flying high early in the season, the rotation was delivering quality and innings. Conversely, their lowest point in the season — the month of June — occurred when their starting staff was unraveling due to injury and ineffectiveness.

Since the club hit rock bottom in June, the Mariners have seen their season slowly get back on track thanks to their rotation. Hernandez returned from the DL, Iwakuma continued to deliver quality starts, Wade LeBlanc helped stabilize the back-end of the rotation, and Paxton was as good as any pitcher in the major leagues in July.

Still, not all was completely well in the Emerald City.

Wade Miley frustrated management and was eventually shipped to Baltimore in exchange for Miranda, while Walker spent most of July on the DL. Despite the upheaval, the Mariners managed to finish July with a 12-12 win-loss record thanks to the combined effort of Felix, Kuma, LeBlanc, and Paxton.

Now, the Mariners are riding high in August. Since their frustrating July 31 meltdown against the Chicago Cubs on ESPN, the club has the second-best record in the American League. During that span, they’ve gained three games on the division-leading Texas Rangers. Things are looking up at Safeco Field.

So, if the Mariners are playing so well, why are two players who’ve spent most of August away from the club so critical? The replacements are putting a strain on the bullpen.

In the last seven games; Miranda, Martin, and LeBlanc averaged a combined 4.9 innings pitched during five starts. That’s an extremely small sample size. But, it’s reasonable to expect the same kind of low-inning output from the trio for the remainder of the season. The bullpen won’t be able to sustain this added workload for very long. They need help.

This is where Paxton and Walker enter the picture.

Assuming Paxton doesn’t suffer any ill effects from taking a line drive off his elbow, he should be able to return to his pre-injury excellence. In the six games leading up to his DL stint, the 27-year-old averaged 6.9 innings-per-start and posted a 2.83 earned run average (ERA). That’s much better than what you’d expect Martin or Miranda to provide for the remainder of the season, right?

 Sure, Paxton could regress to his inconsistent pre-2016 form. But, that shouldn’t happen if he maintains the arm-slot change to his delivery that Prospect Insider founder Jason A. Churchill noted in May.

As with Paxton’s recent performances, Walker was going deep into games and delivering results early in the season. He held opposing hitters to a .253 on-base percentage (OBP) and posted a 1.44 ERA during his first four starts. Walker also averaged 6.25 innings-per-start.

Walker was transforming into the future ace that many observers — including me — believed the 24-year-old was destined to become. Then, the calendar turned to May.

It’s not as if Walker didn’t have any good outings since April. However, he’s been inconsistent finishing the sixth inning just three times in 13 starts since May 1 — a feat he accomplished four times in April. Here’s a look Walker 2016 journey.

Taijuan Walker’s Two Seasons
Month GS
IP/GS
SO/9
BB/9
HR/9 ERA
AVG SLG
April 4 6.25 9.0 1.0 .36 1.44 .223 .298
May-Aug 13 5 7.6 2.35 1.1 5.12 .242 .523

In Walker’s defense, he’s encountered several injury setbacks since the start of May. He left a start after just two innings due to a stiff neck on May 6. Later in the month, he began to struggle with right foot tendonitis. The young hurler tried to work through the malady in subsequent starts, but eventually found himself on the DL for over a month.

On August 6, Walker made a less-than-triumphant return from the DL, surrendering six earned runs in four innings of work on the same night the Mariners retired the jersey number of Ken Griffey Jr. A few days later, he was playing for Class-AAA Tacoma.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Walker struggled when he returned. As Churchill noted during the Josias Manzanillo episode of the Sandmeyer and Churchill podcast, the young hurler had just one rehab start after missing a month of play. Walker wasn’t ready and it showed.

With that said, it’s clear other underlying issues were behind management’s decision to demote Walker.

Manager Scott Servais told Bob Dutton of the Tacoma News-Tribune what Walker needed to do to get back to the big leagues. “The biggest thing is he needs to continue to compete. When you don’t have it on a particular night or you give up some runs early in the game, how do you stay in the game?”

During his weekly appearance on the “Danny, Dave and Moore Show” on 710 ESPN Seattle, Dipoto echoed the sentiment of his manager. “We need to see Taijuan drop into the sixth and seventh inning zone of a game and prove to us that he can be more efficient with his pitches.”

Optimally, Walker would return to his April form. However, the club has set a lower threshold. Reaching the seventh inning and keeping his team competitive would be just fine. As Dipoto noted, “The guy he was in April was extraordinary. We’re not expecting that. We need someone who can consistently get us into the sixth inning.”

That leaves us awaiting the return of Walker and Paxton.

Neither pitcher has to be at their best during their first start. However, at least one must demonstrate they’re capable of keeping their team in games into the seventh inning. If that happens, the Mariners will have a fighting chance for postseason play.

If both pitchers are up to the task, the Mariners will own a decided advantage during their playoff push. Otherwise, their postseason hopes will likely be dashed again. Wouldn’t that be a terrible ending to such a fun season?

 

 

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Luke Arkins

Luke is a native New Yorker, who grew up a Mets fan. After the US Navy moved him to the Pacific Northwest in 2009, he decided to make Seattle his home. During the baseball season, he can be seen often observing the local team at Safeco Field. You can follow Luke on Twitter @luke_arkins
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