Although left-hander James Paxton has long been considered a talented pitching prospect, he's also somewhat always been in the shadows. Sometimes looked at as the third wheel in the "Big Three" that was Paxton, Taijuan Walker and Danny Hultzen, Paxton was also passed up by righty Brandon Maurer last year when Maurer cracked the M's rotation out of spring training. But just a year later, it is Paxton who is rising to the top of that group, no longer lurking in the shadows, but rather finding himself perched firmly in the forefront of the Mariners' pitching rotation scramble.
The M's, of course, employ one of the best arms in the game in ace Felix Hernandez, but a "minor setback" to Walker, a finger injury to Hisashi Iwakuma -- a Cy Young candidate a year ago -- and no significant free agent gets as of yet, has the Mariners a bit thin in the starting pitching ranks. Paxton has been joined this spring by veteran Randy Wolf, who missed all of 2013 with Tommy John surgery, as the only lefties to toe the rubber at the start of games for Seattle, but the 25-year-old Paxton has outperformed the 14-year vet by leaps and bounds.
Paxton allowed his first run of the spring last night but still has not walked a batter and has allowed just seven baserunners in his three starts covering nine innings. He's struck out just four so far, but the left-hander who has battled mechanical issues throughout his career, leading to lapses in control at times, seems to have found his rhythm and is consistently pounding the zone and working ahead of hitters, averaging just 2.58 pitches per plate appearance. Again, yes, I acknowledge this is only spring training, but Paxton's three starts have also produced a team lead in innings and he also leads the starters in ERA (1.00), WHIP (0.78) and leads all Seattle pitchers in ground out/air out ratio at an impressive 4.50. Left-handed hitters are 0-for-8 off of the M's 6-foot-4 lefty and Paxton has allowed just 10 total bases against him while working through innings on just 9.44 pitches on average.
Shannon Drayer of 710 ESPN had a great piece on Paxton at the end of last month about what James learned about himself and his delivery thanks to some direction from the club. In that piece she says, "Ted Simmons and Pete Vukovich [Sr. Advisors to the GM] advised him to get the MLB app on his iPad and take a look at a pitcher that reminded them of him, Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw." The piece quotes Paxton, explaining how that simple tip of the cap to technology and excellence worked for him:
"Watching him one day it just kind of clicked to me that where he was bringing back his arm was different than mine and I started thinking, 'OK, why does he do that?' " Paxton said. "I tried it one day and I realized how much easier it was to get on top of the baseball. I practiced it and practiced it and it came pretty easy. It wasn't hard to change that drop back, just bring it up a little bit. It made it that much easier to repeat and just get on top of the baseball."
Paxton now is using his size and using his length to his advantage more. He's getting on top of the ball and creating that coveted downward plane much better. But most importantly of all, it appears that he has drastically improved his command and made his mechanics more compact and more easily repeatable. This spring and last September, Paxton has walked just seven batters in 33 innings, good for a rate of 1.9 BB/9. He had walked 4.0 per nine in the minor leagues as he climbed towards Seattle, including 3.6 per nine last year for Tacoma. That number is a little misleading, however, as it sounds like there were consistent command issues, when in fact he walked two or less in 16 of his 28 outings. But Paxton hasn't is now not only walking fewer hitters, but getting weaker contact and staying in favorable counts thanks to locating better.
With better location, the plus stuff that Paxton possesses is shining through more. Indeed, not many pitchers can match his stuff (covered in-depth here in our Top-50 breakdown of him), as his fastball can get into the upper-90s even late into games. His 94.3 mph average on his fastball in 2013 MLB starts ranked him solidly in the top 15% of all pitchers and rated as the best number posted by any left-handed starter with 20 or more innings for the year. His curve is more consistent and his cutter continues to improve as well. Throw in the change -- decent simply because of the velocity there on the fastball -- and it gives Paxton a solid four-pitch mix to attack hitters from both sides of the plate with.
With his big improvement in command -- which at least looks so far to be beyond what anyone projected for him even six months ago -- James Paxton is looking more and more like a very good big league starter. The Mariners hope it continues and that this highly rated arm can stay front and center as a lock for the Mariners rotation in 2014 and beyond.
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