Last night's game was a highly concentrated tonic of Same Ol' Mariners. Granted an early 3-0 lead against a bad team, James Paxton's poor command, worse throw to second, Joe West's Magical Morphing Strikezone, and Nori Aoki's "range" in centerfield combined to gift the Padres six runs. One bad inning turned a game destined for victory into almost certain defeat. When combined with the fact that Paxton was spot starting for just DL'd Felix Hernandez, it was an easy night for despair.
A pitcher doesn't allow six runs in an inning without bearing a heavy dose of blame, and Paxton's first inning was no exception. Outside of the fact that he chucked a potential inning-ending double play ball into centerfield, he allowed two home runs, both on terribly located fastballs:
It was another instance of Paxton being an extremely frustrating pitcher to watch. Blessed with a huge fastball, and having shown the ability to carve up major league hitters in the past, the big Canadian's career seems forever to be stopping just as it's starting.
Part of the angst of watching Paxton is the gap between his perceived ceiling and his actual performance. My guess is this disparity largely comes from his fastball velocity, which is elite. In fact, after struggling with reduced velocity through Spring Training, Paxton's velocity yesterday was as good as ever:
Due to differences in methodology Fangraphs only has Paxton's fastball at an average of 96.6 MPH last night. That would still be the third fastest in all of baseball, behind only Noah Syndergaard and Nathan Eovaldi. It would be the fastest for any left-handed starter (min. 40 IP) by more than three miles per hour.
That velocity, was, is, and always will be what makes Paxton a potential big league starting pitcher. And, due to the visceral and primal nature of its raw force, it will also burden him with unfair expectations in the eyes of many fans. So, let's be real here:
James Paxton is a 27-year-old pitcher with bad command, weird mechanics, a spotty injury history, and a big fastball. If he ever throws more than 150 innings in the big leagues in a single season I will be surprised, though not shocked.
Paxton's issues, at least partially, arise from a lack of consistency in his mechanics, and a tendency to drop his arm slot. This diminishes his ability to hide the ball from opponents, and produces less depth on the breaking ball. Compared to the start on April 2, 2014 referenced above, and arguably his best start in MLB, Paxton's arm slot yesterday does indeed appear to be noticeably lower. Here's 2014:
And here's yesterday:
Tacoma's coaching prioritized fixing fixing his arm slot, and it's apparently been an adjustment that comes and goes start to start, inning to inning.
However, even with these issues, and the unlikelihood that Paxton ever truly puts it all together and becomes a dominant starter from the left-side, he is still absolutely the man to stay in the rotation as long as Felix Hernandez remains on the shelf. Even with arm slot issues and flighty command, Paxton was still a decent throw to second base and Leonys Martin playing center field from a messy, one-run inning in the first yesterday. For the rest of his start (and there wasn't much) he was perfectly fine, if unspectacular:
2.2 IP, 6 H, 2 R, 1 BB, 6 K
Absolutely not great, with far too many hits and hard hit balls allowed, but much better. After getting torched in the first throwing almost all fastballs, Paxton began mixing in a low 90's cutter in the second inning and on, and it visibly made the Padres more uncomfortable. He also held his velocity throughout the game, even though he threw a ton of pitches in a short amount of time.
The idea of transitioning Paxton to the bullpen has been floated many times, with the idea being that his big fastball and below average command make him an ideal candidate for short, max-effort appearances. However this thinking ignores current organizational need. With Mike Montgomery thriving in his conversion to relief, Tony Zych returning shortly from injury, and Edwin Diaz lurking in Jackson, the need for a starting pitcher vastly outweighs the need for another reliever. This also overlooks the fact that Paxton's huge variance in command from appearance to appearance, and inning to inning, make him a risky proposition at best in high leverage situations.
James Paxton will probably never be the pitcher we've dreamed he could be, and his gigantic fastball will always leave us wanting more. But last night's disastrous first inning aside, keeping him in the rotation while Felix Hernandez heals is the right call. Paxton is better than Adrian Sampson, and whatever other jetsam is floating around in Tacoma. With the Mariners offense looking like one of the best in baseball, the team doesn't need Paxton to reach his ceiling. They just need him to stay off the floor he smacked into in the first inning last night.