Mariners starter James Paxton is going to win the 2017 American League Cy Young award. You heard it here first.
In baseball, there is no better time of year to have bold, lofty, and irrational expectations than in spring training. But there are numbers to back up this claim, even though he is a 28-year-old who has never made more than 20 starts in a major-league season.
Here is why this is going to happen.
Paxton has always pitched at the level of a top-of-the-rotation starter
There has never been a question about his talent. Paxton debuted in September of 2013, and took the league by storm immediately, posting a 1.50 ERA over 24 innings in four starts. In 2014, his ERA was 3.04 in 74 innings. His worst season, 2015, still featured a decent 3.90 ERA in 13 starts. Not ace-like numbers, but numbers that would put him in the top two or three of most rotations in baseball.
Paxton’s ERA was similar in 2016 (3.79) to his 2015 number, but he made dramatic improvements.
Utilizing a new arm slot taught to him by Tacoma pitching coach Lance Painter, his average fastball velocity rose from 94.2 in 2015 to 96.8 in 2016 — an almost unprecedented gain for a starter. Paxton gained newfound command with his new arm slot, walking just 1.8 batters per nine innings, one walk fewer than his already-good career mark of 2.8.
Digging a little deeper into advanced stats, Paxton’s numbers are similar to the game’s elite. Looking at the FIP of pitchers who threw at least 250 innings from 2013-2016 (the four seasons Paxton has spent time in the majors), Paxton’s 3.32 is 25th in the league. Teammate Felix Hernandez No. 22 with a 3.27 FIP. The chart below shows where Paxton stands among other left-handed starters.
Paxton’s FIP over the past four seasons is eighth-best among major-league left-handers, and third-best among just the southpaws currently in the American League. That’s consistency.
Looking at 2016, Paxton’s 2.80 FIP ranked fourth-lowest in all of baseball among pitchers with at least 120 innings, and first in the American League. The next-closest American League pitcher, Corey Kluber, had a 3.26 FIP.
When Paxton is on the hill, he’s as good as just about anyone in the league. And his best numbers have come in his most recent season.
At 28, Paxton might still have room to improve. Paxton improved dramatically in 2016 in three major areas that he was already good at — strikeouts, limiting walks, and preventing home runs. In any case, Paxton’s ability to be a top-tier starter is obvious.
About that injured elephant in the room
It’s hard not to notice that Paxton has by far the fewest innings pitched among elite left-handers. It’s true, Paxton hasn’t been able to stay on the field. But his injury history doesn’t reveal the types of injuries one would expect to be recurring or career-derailing.
Paxton has been on the disabled list three times in his career, for a strained left oblique and shoulder inflammation in 2014, a strained tendon in his left middle finger in 2015, and for a sore pitching elbow after getting hit with a line drive in 2016. He also had start pushed back a day due to a torn fingernail.
This paints a picture of bad luck as much as being chronically injury-prone. Paxton has had trouble staying on the field, but it hasn’t been one faulty limb or ligament that just won’t get right. Perhaps he’ll suffer another major injury in 2017, but his injury history alone doesn’t include enough evidence to see it as an inevitability.
The 2017 AL Cy Young field isn’t that intimidating
Clayton Kershaw doesn’t pitch in the American League, so why can’t Paxton reach the summit of the junior circuit? The competition all have their own flaws.
2016 Cy Young winner, Boston’s Rick Porcello, is coming off the best season of his career by far. Not to mention, his teammates and fellow Cy Young contenders David Price and Chris Sale will take turns stealing the spotlight from one another.
It also remains to be seen how Sale adjusts to the right-handed-hitting haven of Fenway Park; teammate David Price saw his surface numbers suffer moving into the hitters’ paradise that is Fenway Park — his ERA ballooned to 3.99.
Among other contenders, Detroit’s Justin Verlander will be turning 34 and is coming off of his best season since 2013. It’s probably more likely that his current ability falls somewhere in between his very good 2014-15 and his Cy Young-caliber 2016.
The most credible threat to Paxton is Cleveland’s Corey Kluber, and he’s now on the wrong side of 30. Kluber also benefited from an above-average defense in 2016, while Paxton had one of the league’s worst defensive teams playing behind him.
As it stands, a thin field, as well as three top contenders’ home ballparks playing against them, gives a healthy Paxton as good of a chance as anyone.
Don’t forget the new outfield defense
Despite his outstanding FIP, Paxton’s ERA was a good-not-great 3.79, and his record was just 6-7. Certainly not Cy Young numbers.
But with a much-improved defense behind him, shaving a run off of his ERA isn’t unrealistic, and would likely increase his win and innings totals.
In 2016, the Mariners outfield defense was atrocious. Nori Aoki took the scenic route to every fly ball. Seth Smith and Nelson Cruz turned in defensive efforts that would be hard to call average in a slow-pitch softball league.
In The Fielding Bible’s defensive runs saved (DRS) stat, the Mariners 2016 outfield had a -27 DRS, making them better than just the Twins, Tigers, and Orioles.
Jarrod Dyson (+19 DRS), Mitch Haniger (+1) and a healthy Leonys Martin (-2) could help turn one of the worst outfields in baseball in 2016 into one of the very best. Paxton will certainly be one of many pitchers benefiting from a greater number of fly balls being turned into outs.
It’s also worth noting that the infield’s three worst gloves — Adam Lind (-2), Dae-Ho Lee (-3) and Ketel Marte (-2) — will be wearing different uniforms in 2017.
With the Mariners upgrading so many spots on defense, Paxton’s ERA should drop significantly. The difference between a 3.80 ERA and 2.80 ERA over 200 innings is 22 runs. If the defense saves him anywhere close that many runs, the additional wins would certainly follow.
Okay, so how does this make him a Cy Young contender?
Everything is in place for Paxton to take his rightful place in the upper echelon of major-league starters. He has the talent, and now a defense behind him that will help him cash in on his nearly limitless potential.
What he needs more than anything is a little good luck with the injury bug. Considering his luck over the past few years, he seems due for that. If that happens, American League hitters will certainly notice.
Paxton is one of the league’s five or 10 best pitchers. Pairing his ability with what should be one of the league’s best defenses should reduce his record and ERA to put him in a peer group with elite guys like Chris Sale, Corey Kluber, and Madison Bumgarner.
(I didn’t mention Clayton Kershaw because he is, of course, peerless.)
James Paxton will be your 2017 American League Cy Young award winner. See you at the award ceremony — or the loony bin.
Brett Miller does the agate page for the print edition of the Seattle Times. He is also a proud Washington State University alum, and good at drinking beer and taking criticism. Complain about this article directly to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.