Back in 2012, we all assumed we knew the future. The world was going to end, and even-year magic would be the final memory of professional baseball before humanity was swept aside by an extinction-level event. Barring that, however, we were still confident in our lesser auguries: The Mariners had a future, and it came in the form of the Big Three. Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen, and James Paxton were the triumvirate destined to reinforce, and perhaps one day supplant King Félix.
Taijuan was the Prince, a righty with the stuff and the smile to be the clear heir to the King’s throne. After years of brilliance matched with inconsistency and whispers of commitment and work ethic issues, Walker was traded to Arizona this offseason. 0/1.
Hultzen was the Sure Thing, a lefty who was “MLB-ready,” with command and poise to hang with the pros right out of college. It might have all been true, and when healthy Hultzen impressed at nearly every turn, but it was not meant to be, and Hultzen retired in the middle of 2016, overcome by devastating arm injuries. 0/2.
Paxton was The Project. A 4th round pick out of Kentucky (after a year spent in the independent leagues following a contract dispute with the Blue Jays), the size and talent was there, but the command and health were concerns. Before 2016 he was locked in a Spring Training battle for the 5th starter spot with Nathan Karns.
He lost that battle.
He enters 2017 as the Mariners’ best, truest chance at an ace.
His time in Tacoma last season was spent working on lowering his arm slot slightly, and improving his consistency. The results were staggering. Paxton went from a tall lefty trebuchet to a Robin Hood-esque marksman.
The percentage of pitches Pax peppered the zone with leapt 4% last year, while the rate at which opponents made contact in the zone (Z-Contact) dropped 5%. If you look at the pitchers in this range, you see two general groups: aces, or at least, ace-level performers in 2016 (Kershaw, Strasburg, Porcello, Scherzer, Sale, Price), and steady performers with less than elite velocity (Colon, Chen, Dickey, Iwakuma). Paxton and Hisashi Iwakuma both threw a lot of pitches in the zone last year, but the reason that Kuma is our rock and Paxton may be a meteor is that swinging-strike rate. There just aren't that many pitchers in the league with the stuff to make hitters look as silly as Paxton can.
Those that do often have to skirt the edges of the zone and live outside of it. Through coaching and adjustments, Paxton recognized that when faced with a barrier, he has the strength to just drive right through it. By challenging hitters constantly in the zone, Pax dropped his walk rate to a delightful 1.79 BB/9, and incorporated his rude-to-unfair sinker and cutter with great success. You may remember reading this piece after an inauspicious beginning to Paxton's season, replacing an injured Felix Hernandez. From it, there is a fun diagram I want to revisit, courtesy of Brooks Baseball.
That blaze did not die. It grew and grew until it nearly engulfed the entire league, as Paxton’s fastball was the second fastest average pitch for any starter in Major League Baseball last year, trailing only Noah Syndergaard. While the Mets’ ace is nicknamed for a god of war, we commonly shorten our gentle giant’s name to a word meaning peace. Pax’s demeanor belies his conflagrant arsenal, and it should be just as infernal this year.
His two-seam/sinker is almost as unacceptable as a pitch can be, diving over 10 inches horizontally and nearly seven and a half downwards. In 348 uses of his sinker and curveball last season, not a single one resulted in a home run. Paxton’s game lends itself towards generated strikeouts and ground balls, but too will likely benefit from the improved defense across the field, as well as a reduced BABIP allowed from his unpleasant (and unlucky) .348. Things look very promising for the last remaining member of the Big Three to take charge of the rotation. At last, 1/3.
The last remaining concern, barring a complete reversion of his mechanical and physical improvements, is health. It's been what has dogged him his entire professional career, and as the 28 year-old prepares for his first certain full season, uncertainty about his ability to be out on the mound is what keeps Mariners fans gnashing their teeth. In 2016, combining Tacoma and Seattle, Paxton threw 171.2 innings. Finger injuries, line drives, and back strains connected to working out too much pepper his injury report, and a leaner, meaner, Canadian Mariner stands ready to take charge in 2017.
If Paxton picks up where he left off and can throw 170+ innings, the Mariners will have an ace again. It's that simple, and it's likely that important. King Félix may return healthier, but his velocity loss puts a cap on any real likelihood of a resurgence (feel free to prove me wrong). Kuma has similar limitations, and the added fact that, while it may shock some people, 36-year-olds tend to lose a bit of velocity. He should be steady, but not an ace. Drew Smyly’s entire oeuvre is not dissimilar from Pax, as it relates to getting whiffs and peppering the zone, but his velocity lacks Paxton’s 100 mph ceiling. The rest of the pile has competency written all over them, but Paxton? Well, he’s been destined for more.