For the better part of the last year we’ve been conditioned into this idea that the Mariners have a “Big Three,” a trio of top-of-the-rotation. For the same portion of the same year conservative baseball minds have been saying that hyperbole should be checked, and that we shouldn’t count our chickens before they hatch.
If you remember, or even if you don’t, the Mariners had a pretty significant “Big Three” back in the late 90s and early 2000s named Ryan Anderson, Gil Meche, and Joel Pineiro. If you’d have told anyone that of all those pitchers Ryan Anderson wouldn’t make the big leagues, they’d have called you crazy. He was ranked in the top 25 prospects in baseball for five straight years, and had a ready-made mentor in Randy Johnson on the Mariners pitching staff when he was drafted in 1997.
Meche and Pineiro would become mid-rotation starters eventually, fulfilling part of their potential, but ultimately the trio wasn’t nearly as good as expected.
Pitchers are fickle. Their entire careers rest on small ligaments in their elbows and shoulders, the fragile fibers of their psyches, and their ability to repeat the same motion over and over and over again.
So James Paxton. He’s the third member of the big three. We may have, at one time, thought he was the second member of the big three, or even the first member before the Mariners drafted Danny Hultzen, but he’s the third member now. No question.
The knock on Paxton has always been that he walked to many hitters. His strength is striking out a lot of guys, and not allowing many home runs. In the 219.0 innings he’s pitched in the minors he’s allowed only nine home runs, and in the same 219.0 innings he’s struck out 259 batters. But in those same 219.0 innings he’s walked 104 batters. Walks are bad, obviously, and so are homeruns. Strikeouts are good. This equation is pretty simple. However, determining Paxton’s future success requires context.
Paxton has averaged 4.27 BB/9 in his career, and 10.6 K/9. Good for a 2.49 K/BB ratio. League average K/BB in the big leagues this year was 2.51, so it would seem that Paxton is on a pretty good track. The problem though, is that he got much worse in Jackson this year (2.04), and that it doesn’t figure to get any easier as he moves up each level. Paxton undoubtedly gets away with a lot of mistakes that he wouldn’t otherwise get away with. He’s got dynamic stuff, but he doesn’t have enough control.
So how bad is it?
In the past three years, only four pitchers with more than 300 IP as a starter have averaged more than 4.27 BB/9: Jonathan Sanchez, Edinson Volquez, Carlos Zambrano, and J.A. Happ.
Zambrano has encountered an abrupt end to the productive part of his career, also averaging only 6.91 K/9, but the other three pitchers are reasonably young, and in the relative primes of their career. The lowest xFIP of the bunch though is Volquez at 4.08, which is right around league average. The other two pitchers are about a notch above league average (4.34 for Happ, 4.51 for Sanchez).
That’s not to say there is no value in being a league-average pitcher, or something close to it. The pitchers have combined for 10.1 WAR in the past three years, and any one of them would have a spot in the Mariners present-day rotation. But they’re not aces. They’re 4th starters on good teams. 3rd starters on bad teams. Sanchez got DFA’d by the Royals. Zambrano got all-but-given away by the Cubs. Volquez was a throw-in in a trade for Mat Latos (an overrated pitcher in his own right). And Happ has pitched three pretty nondescript seasons in the past three years while bouncing to three teams.
None of those seem like favorable outcomes for Paxton, and if he doesn’t change soon, a bullpen role may be in his future. The list of relievers with a walk rate as high as Paxton is a bit more promising, and Paxton’s walk rate and strike out rate may take strides just by moving to the bullpen, while his stinginess with the long ball will play very well. Those relievers, by the way, are: Carlos Marmol, Kevin Gregg, Jose Veras, Ernesto Frieri, Jonny Venters, and Tony Sipp. All but Gregg and Sipp have better-than-average xFIPs, and Marmol, Gregg, and Frieri have spent significant time in the closer role for their teams.
So the Mariners may not actually have a “Big Three,” and as we update our prospect list here on NASORB that opinion will be reflected in our ranking of Paxton. That’s not to say the Mariners farm system is bare of pitchers beyond the “Maybe Big Two,” as guys like Brandon Maurer and Tyler Pike seem ready to push for that third spot. And having the option, or potential option to salvage Paxton as a high-leverage reliever, or trade him with the same value is still reasonably good news for the Mariners, much better than the news they received during Anderson’s career.
And sure, Paxton is still just 24 years old, but he’ll have to figure out how to walk less batters if he’s going to be an upper-rotation starter.