Following a rough first few months in his first shot of Triple-A, 24-year-old B.C. native James Paxton has made some real advancements in his last eight outings for the Tacoma Rainiers, getting deeper into games and holding opposing hitters quiet. The change, according to him and a couple of his coaches, is all tied to one thing: "Keeping my body on line," to the plate, Paxton told me yesterday.
A first round talent who Seattle smartly snagged in round four following a year of him sitting out of baseball, Paxton is one of the heralded Big Three (or Big Four, if you prefer) pitching prospects who have been followed closely by M's fans for two years, eyed as the future in Seattle. Always blessed with a very talented arm, he pitched great during his climb in Seattle's system and at the end of last season it was Paxton who seemed like the best bet to get an extended chance at a rotation spot in Seattle entering 2013. But the lefty was hit hard in three appearances in big league camp, and with no Triple-A experience, it seemed the right thing to do to have James start his 2013 with the Rainiers.
In the rotation for Tacoma to open the year, Paxton had troubles with his command which led to climbing pitch counts. Through his first 13 starts he was averaging just under 89 pitches per start, but he had pitched into the sixth inning only three times, averaging just 4 2/3 innings per start and nearly 19 pitches per inning while walking 4.3 batters per nine innings. Tacoma Manager John Stearns said his struggles were simple to identify, "He had trouble with his fastball command, and he really wasn't commanding his secondary pitches, either."
There had been a long standing opinion by a good portion of people in the industry that Paxton was destined for the bullpen because of his struggles with mechanics and command, and his troubling start only led to the volume of those doubts. But something changed with him, something seemingly clicked, and he's on a run right now that is very promising indeed. So what clicked?
To hear Paxton, Stearns and his former pitching coaches' takes on it, a lot of those early command issues were tied to that body not being on line. What does that mean exactly? "Early on, I was spinning toward third base [in his delivery and finish], and as a result a lot of my pitches were ending up high and away from my target to right-handed hitters," Paxton says. But by all accounts, that has been corrected. And it has been corrected in a real and sustainable way.
Jackson pitching coach Dwight Bernard, who had Paxton in the first half of this year in Tacoma, says that it didn't come easy. "First off, he's a great listener, a great learner," Bernard told me yesterday morning. "It [Paxton's recent dominance] is the result of a lot of hard work on his part. He's starting to see that hard work pay off now," said Bernard. I asked if Paxton -- who regularly reached the mid- to upper-90s even late in starts in the past -- was backing off the fastball, sacrificing velocity for command as I had one scout suggest to me. Bernard said no. "He's not backing off, he's just repeating the delivery and keeping the upper body in tune -- keeping it on line. He still gets his 96s and 97s."
Paxton has won four times in his last eight starts, posting a 2.41 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, .219 oAVG and 48 to 10 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 52 1/3 innings. That innings total -- good for second in the PCL over that stretch -- has been boosted by two complete games (tied for 1st in the PCL on the season), including his first professional shutout. He's lowered his ERA from 5.73 to 4.17 over those last eight games and has his pitches per inning down to 14.8 in that stretch. Combine that with his low 4.8% BB% and it is clear that this is not the same James Paxton that started the year for Tacoma.
"It's a pretty incredible run he's been on," said Stearns. "He's got the whole package," Stearns added, "He's a big guy, 6-foot-4 or 6-foot-5, and he's working downhill. And he's 93-95 and higher. And he does a great job of using his strong lower half, getting good drive off of that back leg. I'm really impressed with what I've seen from him." Bernard echoed those thoughts, adding, "He's got everything he needs to succeed at the next level."
One addition to Paxton's 'everything' this year includes a slider that he's using as an additional weapon. "Right now it's more of a 'show me' pitch, so I use it about three or four times a game, but I used it more last game," James told me. And in that last game, the lefty tossed a complete game (loss) where he surrendered just one run in the hitter's haven that is Reno.
While Paxton's 4.17 season ERA looks a little high for a prospect, it is worth considering that the league ERA for the PCL is 4.49 on the year. To add even more context to that, Paxton's 3.27 FIP is the 5th best mark in the league through games of the 30th.
His minor league career now stands at 63 starts and 331 1/3 innings for the Mariners, striking out 10.0 batters-per-nine, allowing less than a hit an inning and trimming his walks a bit as he's advanced each level. And while the majority of those 63 outings have been good ones for Paxton, the progress that he has made over the last two months of this 2013 season are the most important numbers on him. The result is that he is very close to having nothing left to prove in the minors.
Already at a career high in innings pitched in a season this year with 112 1/3, Paxton could see a call up to Seattle in the next month, but the left-hander isn't getting too anxious for that call. "Whenever it happens is out of my control," said Paxton, somewhat symbolically, to me, using that word, "But I'm going to sure enjoy it when it is time."
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