Oh Hey There I’m James Paxton Look At Me
Lots of people love the minor leagues, which is weird, but which isn’t ultimately all that much weirder than loving the major leagues. And here’s maybe the neatest thing about having a minor-league system: unless your system is the biggest unfortunate catastrophe since every day Jeff Dunham spends alive on this planet, at any point someone somewhere is going to be excelling. There are just too many teams and too many young players for everybody to disappoint at once, and when one prospect is on fire, it’s easy enough to focus on him while downplaying the negative performances of all the rest. If, you know, that’s what’s happening. There’s always going to be a guy who seems to be breaking through, which is always exciting, and right now that potential breakthrough player appears to be James Paxton.
You remember Paxton. Pitching prospect. Mariners. Somewhere between 20 and 40 years old. Throws with his arm. Paxton didn’t get the draft position of Danny Hultzen, and he’s long been surpassed by Taijuan Walker in terms of prospect hype. Paxton has probably been talked about the least of the Big Three, and for a while he was plagued by control concerns. This year he’s been pitching in Tacoma and his ERA’s north of 4. He dropped off the MLB.com midseason list of the top 100 prospects, but allow me to present to you select statistics from Paxton’s most recent seven starts:
- 46.2 innings
- 14 runs
- 4.4% walks
- 24% strikeouts
- 66% strikes
- 74% contact
Most notable, to me, is the strike rate, as only one of three Paxton pitches has gone for a ball. Last year, he barely threw 61% strikes. The year before, the same story. Before this most recent stretch, Paxton’s 2013 strike rate was 60%, and in his last turn he threw 70 strikes out of 96 pitches. Going by rolling five-start averages, Paxton’s at his strike rate season peak. To make this all simple and non-numerical: used to be, Paxton didn’t throw enough strikes, but for several weeks he’s been throwing more than enough strikes.
Paxton has seven starts this year in which he didn’t even throw strikes with three-fifths of his pitches, but the most recent one was on June 17. His manager has talked about his improvement from April and May, and twice this month Paxton’s thrown a complete game. What none of this is is a guarantee that Paxton has figured out how to hit his spots. We’re using strike rate as a proxy for location, and Paxton’s been facing some bad hitters, probably. And this is a hand-selected sample of starts that we’re looking at. But James Paxton is coming on strong, by doing the thing he didn’t do enough of before. Statistically, he’s surging.
Paxton has his fastball, and he has his curveball. People have long lamented that his changeup isn’t good enough, but you can be a starter with a fastball and a curveball. Shelby Miller is one such starter. Erik Bedard is another such starter, one to whom Paxton has drawn plenty of comparisons. Lots of people anticipate that Paxton will end up in a bullpen, because he’s too much like Bedard, but then Bedard has long been a quality starter when he’s been healthy enough to pitch. It’s brutally difficult for a prospect to shed a reputation once a reputation develops, and Paxton’s reputation was one of inefficiency and inconsistency. He might now be making progress, but it won’t be that easy for him to win mass trust. People need a lot of convincing to change their minds.
James Paxton is healthy and starting and throwing strikes and 24. He’s not an outstanding prospect, but he’s a good prospect who might still figure into the long-term rotation plans. Though he’s not on the 40-man roster, room could be made if the team wanted him to get a cup of coffee down the stretch, and failing that, Paxton could be an option next spring if he’s still here and if he’s still healthy and if he continues to find the zone. Strikes have been the thing, and Paxton’s been throwing them. That’s some kind of development, and it might not be minor.