James Paxton’s Company
It’s been a bit of a dark stretch. Danny Hultzen needs to have his shoulder amputated. The man in charge is going to stay the man in charge. The savior of the organization passed away. And the Mariners suck. Can’t really skip over that last part. There’s a lot of young talent on the team, yeah, and this wasn’t ever going to be a real contender, sure, but the Mariners are in line to have a protected first-round draft pick, which you don’t get without sucking. The team’s been just about unwatchable, and now we get to look forward to an offseason of probable desperation. We’ve long talked about the parallels between the Mariners and the Royals. There could be big mistakes on the way.
There are two reasons to keep watching a bad team. Maybe you just really like baseball! Totally acceptable. I really like bagels, but I’m not particularly picky about them, so I’ll eat a good bagel or a bad one and it won’t make much of a difference. Yeah, I’d be happier with a good bagel, but a bagel’s a bagel and if a bad bagel’s all I can get, I’ll take it when I’m in the mood. Alternatively, you’re in it for the young guys. Actually, let me put that a different way — alternatively, you’re in it for the signs of development. You’re in it for the hope you can feel for the future. This season might be shot, but you’re well past worrying about this season. You’re skipping ahead, and now the rest of this season kind of feels like the next season’s spring training. Next season could be the season!
And as signs of development go, last night James Paxton turned in a big flashy one. Facing a team fighting for its playoff life, Paxton spun seven shutout innings, and more importantly, he did it with ten strikeouts and not one single walk. Paxton looked every bit the ace, and for good measure, he kept almost every ball in play on the ground. Obviously, Paxton isn’t an ace right now, but the question is what he’ll be, and when. Last night, though just one start, could offer some clues.
I should point something out: yeah, strikeout rates are up. There are more strikeouts these days than there have ever been. On the other hand, the Royals have baseball’s lowest strikeout rate against lefties, and second-lowest strikeout rate overall. Whiffs aren’t that easy to come by against Kansas City, but Paxton missed bats, and also, the no-walks thing. This is James Paxton, after all.
A game like yesterday’s usually isn’t a fluke. Nobody averages a start like that, but generally speaking, you have to possess a certain amount of talent to be able to turn in ten whiffs and zero walks. For worse pitchers, it’s just almost too statistically improbable. Picture a normal curve, on a graph. In the middle is a pitcher’s true talent. The curve tells you about his expected game results. Good pitchers, obviously, are more capable of good games than bad pitchers. It’s math.
I decided to look up other starts like Paxton’s. Taking to the Baseball-Reference Play Index, I looked at the last three years, setting strikeouts at 10+, walks at zero, and hit batters at zero. I came up with a list of 59 other pitchers who’ve had at least one such start. Felix is the leader, with six. Cliff Lee and David Price each have four. Then the rest. It’s a list that features an awful lot of incredible names.
Obviously they’re not all good. The list also features, say, Wade LeBlanc and James McDonald. Hey look, there’s Aaron Harang! But out of the group, the average career ERA+ is 111. The median career ERA+ is 109. If you’re confused by ERA+ and ERA-, with ERA+, above-average is above 100. With ERA-, above-average is below 100. Generally, it’s been good pitchers having these starts, so if you have one of these starts, odds are better you’re a good pitcher.
I also looked all-time, even though, again, strikeout rates have changed a lot. I found 352 other pitchers who had at least one such qualifying start. Out of the group, the average career ERA+ is 107. The median career ERA+ is 105. Maybe of interest, excluding the actives, the average number of career innings is north of 2,100. The median number of career innings is just south of 2,000. The median’s 282 career starts. It’s a list with names like Ruben Quevedo, Matt Perisho, and Kevin Jarvis, but it’s also a list with names like Pedro Martinez, Matt Harvey, and Lefty Grove. Most baseball lists are going to have a blend of better players and worse players, but lists like this have better players in greater proportions. One start is only as meaningful as one start, and it’s probably not fair to compare Paxton to guys who’ve had several such starts, but Paxton might do that, too. His career’s just beginning.
Six pitchers, ever, have had a start like this within the first four games of their careers. Stephen Strasburg had two! 13 pitchers ever have had a start like this within the first ten. I didn’t think John Lannan and David Purcey would be two of them. Well now I’m less excited. James Paxton: some probability of turning into John Lannan. He’s getting the grounders. I guess he’s had a long career.
The analysis above is biased: I know that it selected for better pitchers, by grouping guys who threw a lot of these starts with guys who only ever threw one. But I took just a straight, unweighted average, so hopefully that mitigates things. And, really, we don’t even necessarily need the numbers, so long as we can understand the theory — the odds of a good pitcher having this start are better than the odds of a bad pitcher having this start. On that basis alone, we can feel more encouraged about Paxton. He did have a bit of trouble against the Tigers, but the Tigers happen to be great. You lower your standards.
Naturally, the thing with Paxton’s always been about the inconsistency. He’s done that thing where he’s alternated brilliance with unwatchability. Over a seven-start stretch this year in the minors, he had eight walks and 43 strikeouts. Over his next five starts, he had 17 and 13. He followed that with a gem against Salt Lake. With Paxton, it’s been hard to tell what’s coming next, and that’s why people have thought of him as occupying a tier below Taijuan Walker and Danny Hultzen. But what we have is a lefty starter in the bigs who can touch 98, and he just had a game with ten strikeouts and zero walks. There’s a good pitcher in there. Maybe a real good one. I’ve never been afraid of the Erik Bedard comparisons, because Bedard had a lot of success in between the DL stints.
I’m going to make you like James Paxton, dammit. That’s what I feel like I’m writing today. I don’t know what he’ll be, but I know what he was last night, and I know what that does to the math. And Paxton’s pace? 19.4 seconds. It isn’t Bedards all the way down.