James Paxton Lands Softly in Seattle

A few days after signing Ken Giles to bolster their bullpen of tomorrow, the Mariners signed a free agent who should help the team this year, and it’s a big one for Seattle fans. On Saturday, the M’s agreed to a one-year, $8.5 million deal with James Paxton, with incentives that could bring the total outlay to $10 million. With spring training just a few days away, it’s a reunion that makes a lot of sense for both parties.

Paxton was originally drafted by the Mariners in 2010 and worked his way through the organization to make his major league debut in 2013. A litany of injuries prevented him from making an impact during the first three years of his major league career, but he broke out in 2016 when he suddenly started throwing 97 mph. He was traded to the Yankees prior to the 2019 season and was a solid presence in their rotation that year, but the injury bug struck again in 2020, limiting him to just five starts. Now, he returns to the Mariners and will share the rotation with the headlining prospect — Justus Sheffield — that came to Seattle from New York in that trade two years ago.

Paxton’s ability to stay on the mound has always been a lingering concern. The last time he made it through an entire season without at least one trip to the injured list was 2013, when he made a full slate of starts for the Triple-A Tacoma Rainiers and then made his major league debut in September. Last year, it was a strained flexor in his left forearm that sidelined him (that after offseason back surgery). The year before that it was a knee injury. He’s also dealt with arm contusions, back inflammation, and muscle strains in his fingers, arm, and torso. If you were to map out the parts of his body that have been hurt, the entire left side of his body would glow red.

With such a long list of injuries in his past, including a fairly serious one last year, it shouldn’t be surprising to see him accept a deal that would have been a serious underpay just a year ago. Craig Edwards ranked Paxton 13th overall and the fourth best starter in this year’s crop of top free agents and estimated he’d be able to pull down a one-year deal worth $15 million; the median crowd estimate landed on that figure too. A long injury history didn’t stop Atlanta from signing Drew Smyly to a one-year, $11 million contract, but he threw more innings in 2020 and ended the year healthy. Paxton’s injury risk was high enough to give teams pause.

Based on Jeff Zimmerman’s research into injury trends, which has found that previous injuries, particularly to a pitcher’s throwing arm, are the leading indicator for predicting future injuries, Paxton is pretty likely to find himself on the injured list again. The 32-year-old lefty obviously has a lot of MRIs and flexible braces in his past, but his most recent forearm strain was the first injury to his throwing arm since 2017, if you discount a contusion he suffered in ’18 after getting hit by a batted ball. All the other injuries, while serious, have been to other parts of his body. But even if the lack of recurring arm injuries is a good sign, the fact that he simply can’t keep his entire body working is a significant concern.

Paxton’s fastball velocity, meanwhile, was a huge issue in 2020. After his velocity spiked in 2016 at 97 mph, he settled in around 95.5 mph over the next three years. Last year, though, his fastball was the slowest it’s ever been in his career, averaging just 92.1 mph; in fact, his entire repertoire took a dip velocity-wise. The forearm injury that cost him most of the season was probably primarily responsible for that.

Despite that, Paxton was still able to hold his strikeout rate right around where it’s been since 2017. All of his pitches continued to generate obscene amounts of whiffs, but the problem was when opposing batters made contact — a recurring problem in his career. When he elevates his fastball up in the zone, it’s been an extremely effective pitch for him. But if his location is off by a hair, those fastballs often get left out over the plate. Last year, he threw more pitches above the middle of the strike zone but below the lower edge of the shadow zone than ever before. And on pitches thrown inside the upper shadow zone, opposing batters were nearly as effective against them as they were against pitches thrown over the heart of the plate.

James Paxton, elevated pitch performance
Pitch Vertical Location Pitch% wOBA xwOBA
2.5 ft – 3.16 ft (Heart) 26.1% 0.488 0.304
3.16 ft – 3.83 ft (Shadow) 10.7% 0.350 0.292

Without the extra margin for error afforded by his elite fastball velocity, all those elevated pitches became much more crushable when they came in three miles per hour slower.

In a December showcase, Paxton’s fastball reportedly reached 94 mph, which is an encouraging sign for the Mariners. Seattle is also planning on using a six-man rotation this season, with the hope that the extra day of rest for the rotation should alleviate some of the injury concerns. Paxton will be stepping into an environment that’s already set up to protect the health of its starters, and because he’s already familiar with Seattle — and has a strong connection to the fanbase there — signing a one-year deal to reestablish his value was a no-brainer.

For the Mariners, Paxton gives them a high-ceiling starter that they’ve sorely lacked since he left two years ago. It’s also an indication that the front office doesn’t view 2021 as a completely lost season. Seattle won’t be mistaken for a true contender just yet, but if enough things break right, and if the right youngsters continue to develop, and if Jarred Kelenic makes an impact immediately, the wide open AL West could be a target this summer. That’s a lot of ifs that would need to come true, but giving Paxton a one-year pillow contract doesn’t upset the rebuild timeline all that much, and gives the rotation a significant boost … if he can stay on the mound.





Jake Mailhot is a contributor to FanGraphs. A long-suffering Mariners fan, he also writes about them for Lookout Landing. Follow him on Twitter @jakemailhot.

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Kevbot034
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Kevbot034

Injury concerns or not, it’s interesting Smyly, who has never been as good as Paxton when healthy, is making more money. Paxton is a legitimate ace type arm when he’s out there, even if he’s never even topped 160 innings. Smyly…is not.

nevinbrown
Member
nevinbrown

I’d guess the calculus is that the reward of elite Paxton for 160 innings is not great enough to offset the downside that he might have a UCL reconstruction before spring training is over. I think teams value 2 WAR over 2.5 WAR and -0.5 WAR even if they’re the same.

fuster
Member
fuster

Paxton slots more as a #2

Kevbot034
Member
Kevbot034

If he’s your 2 it’s cause you have a phenomenal 1.

sadtrombone
Member
Member
sadtrombone

I feel like there are enough definitions of #1, #2, #3 starters that if you don’t define your terms it’s not going to make a lot of sense to others. Me, I always thought of him as a #2 (4 win-type pitcher over a full season).