Insider Scouting: James Paxton AFL Update

Scout Adam McInturff saw James Paxton’s outing Wednesday night in the Arizona Fall League. He provides scouting notes from the game, while weighing in on trade rumors surrounding the Mariners southpaw. 

James Paxton’s season was officially over on September 29, when then-manager Lloyd McClendon confirmed that lingering left hand and finger issues would shut down the lefty. It was announced that Paxton would pitch in the Arizona Fall League to get his overall 2015 innings total closer to 100—he had only pitched 67 at the conclusion of his big league season.

Paxton’s last 30 innings or so in the hitter-friendly AFL haven’t been his prettiest, with 12 earned runs in 24.1 innings—made worse by consistently so-so starts, as opposed to one clunker that messes up his stat line in a short sample surrounded by otherwise quality starts.

I saw Paxton toe the rubber for four innings Wednesday, amid rumors swirling he could be involved in some of the potential trades the Mariners could be considering. Paxton allowed two earned runs on three hits in his four innings of work, striking out five. He allowed a home-run on an up-and-in fastball to Rowdy Tellez (Blue Jays); of more detriment to his outing, however, were the four walks he allowed. Though Paxton hasn’t posted fantastic fall numbers, control hasn’t been the issue: his four walks Wednesday were as many as he had allowed in five previous fall league starts. The walks he surrendered were on low misses, and I didn’t come away overly concerned about the walks in this outing being a continuing trend.

It’s important to note that AFL stats really don’t tell the whole story. The samples are short, and there can be many player development mandates—especially for pitchers—that the public isn’t always aware of. In Paxton’s case, he isn’t throwing breaking balls this fall in Arizona. His breaking-ball grips rely on a certain pressure on a rough seam which would be held by the finger that wiped out most of his 2015 season. I definitely think not throwing a breaking ball contributes to some of the reason Paxton has gotten hit a little harder than one would expect a somewhat-seasoned pitcher with over 100 career innings to perform against prospects.

Though the power-armed Paxton throws a lot of fastballs, his breaking ball is his most used secondary pitch. Taking the curveball away presents both positives and negatives: it has forced Paxton to keep developing his cutter (a pitch he used less than 5% of the time both last season and for his career)—but I also think Paxton needs to continue to develop a traditional breaking ball, something I’ve always been concerned would be troublesome for a pitcher with his arm-action. He’ll likely walk away from this fall more versatile and with a better feel for a cut fastball—which could help his left-haned, fastball-based arsenal quite a bit—but his stats this fall reflect the degree Paxton using a breaking ball plays a role in his success.

From a physical and mechanical standpoint, Paxton looked like the same guy I saw from a scout’s angle a few times behind the plate this past MLB season. He’s a physical left-hander with long features, and he has deception in a funky delivery. His throwing arm gets way behind his back hip, and he throws his front-arm very high and closed up in the air to hide his release point. It is a different look for any batter, but creates an especially tough angle against same-side hitters.

Paxton’s big fastball and ability to miss bats were also where I remember them being in ‘mid-season’ form. Paxton is between a 7-8 strikeout-per-nine pitcher, who also has generated a lot of ground-balls (near or upwards of 50%) through his time in the majors. He sat 93-95 tonight and would run the fastball up to 96 with two strikes. It was impressive that Tellez got to the fastball he pulled over the right-field fence, because otherwise Paxton’s fastball was blowing past hitters. He threw a hard, split-like changeup at 85-88 as his second pitch, and basically alternated between his fastball and change the first time through the Rafters’ lineup. Paxton began to mix in a cutter at 85-86 that at first was somewhat crude, but then showed a little more action as he threw it a few more times. The cutter didn’t look like a great pitch, but Paxton has a big fastball and I’ve seen him struggle with a traditional breaking ball—bringing out a cutter seems like a good ‘middle-ground.’

Paxton’s name has appeared in trade rumors surrounding the Yankees and Mariners in recent days. Regardless if these clubs actually make a deal—let alone one including Paxton or, as is reported, potentially Brett Gardner—it is telling that Paxton is both being made so readily available by the Mariners’ new brass, as well as pitching in front of pro scouting departments this fall in the AFL.

In Paxton, a club could be receiving a unique but potentially impactful left-handed starter, who will also pitch 2016 at or around league-minimum. Paxton won’t be arbitration-eligible until 2017. For clubs that are both building rotations for 2016 and for the future, I think Paxton is a great fit that should command a legitimate return in a trade. From the perspective of a club with offense to spare and needs in a rotation (Cubs, Blue Jays fit this mold—all my own speculation), Paxton is an attractive fit if Seattle is making him as available as these rumors make it appear. The small salaries he’s owed the next few seasons as a pre-arbitration or early-arbitration player make him a trade target that won’t eliminate any team, regardless of how small their budget is.

Paxton’s career innings pitched total is 165 over three seasons. One would hope he could near or match that total with in one season next year if he can stay healthy—which might be the primary concern other teams have when discussing Paxton in trades. In those 165 innings—about a full season’s worth, hypothetically—Paxton has still been a 2.1 fWAR starter, one with a 3.16 ERA and well above-average ground-ball rates. Even if he remains at that level of output every 165 innings or so, for the league-minimums he’ll be playing for, he’s a valuable piece. Paxton has been a real contributor during the innings he has pitched, which make these trade rumors somewhat surprising to me, and make a significant return for Paxton likely if he is indeed dealt this off-season.

I think Paxton can take another step forward, so long as he’s able to simply consistently take the ball every fifth day. He is a unique type of left-hander, but he has the chance for the type of power stuff and deception that accompany front-line left-handed starters. He’s often compared to Andy Pettitte for the way he hides the ball with his front side, but Paxton is more of a blow-you-away power pitcher, and Pettitte likely had a cleaner delivery and was a more refined ‘control and command’ type of guy. Given his age, service time, and relatively cheap salary commitment, Paxton is a definite ‘breakout candidate’ in 2016 with the potential to provide real value on the dollar. I think with some adjustments to either his pitch usage and/or refinement of a breaking ball, he can increase his strikeout totals.

The only two left-handed starters to average over 94 mph on their fastballs were David Price and James Paxton. Paxton’s average velocity was ahead of Price’s, not to mention Paxton’s 94.8 mph average on his two-seam was the highest of any left-handed starting pitcher in MLB in 2015.

Paxton showed that his raw stuff and velocity are still there despite his hand troubles, and with the increase in speculation about his availability, it will be interesting to monitor the amount of teams sending scouts to see the left-hander reach his innings limit down the stretch this fall in Arizona.

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