James Paxton, who turned in a quality start in his last outing, is beginning to resemble another hard-throwing lefty for the Mariners you may have heard of.
James Paxton was great again in his last start and it is clearly a matter of consistency for the tall lefty starter for the Mariners to become an elite pitcher in the big leagues. It might surprise you to find out that the numbers indicate that 27-year-old James Paxton is developmentally close to another Mariner lefty starter at his age, Cy Young Award winner and Hall of Famer, Randy Johnson.
Flashback to 1990, when the “Big Unit” was just 27 years old heading into his first full season with Seattle. Randy had just been traded during his second season with the Expos. Johnson was a mere afterthought for many, in a trade that involved Mark Langston and Brian Holman, and in an pre-Internet era in which young talent often went unrecognized by 99% of fans.
Randy was coming to Seattle after failing to secure a spot in one of the worst teams in the National League’s starting rotation. Johnson had only been given 10 starts in Montreal before coming to Seattle, but in 28 games started in 1989, Randy had an ERA of 4.82 and a WHIP of 1.51.
To Seattle players and fans, Randy sort of came out of nowhere in the aftermath of a trade that left a heartbroken team and fanbase. Langston was viewed at the time as the franchise’s first great starting pitcher, a rookie pitcher of the year in 1984, and the team’s ace in each of the next five seasons. Alternatively, Johnson did not have a good first year in Seattle and as he went into his second in 1990, Randy could get hitters out, but was incredibly wild at times. With the development of his slider and still throwing as hard as he was, 27 year old Johnson got his ERA down to 3.65 and his WHIP down to 1.34. The season is not over, but Paxton’s ERA is 3.93 and has a WHIP of 1.39. Amazingly, James Paxton throws even harder than Randy at his age, and walks fewer batters. They have very similar numbers in similar eras for pitching statistics (as long as you ignore complete games and shutouts). Lately, Paxton has pitched better after a rough start, and his numbers are likely to be better than Johnson’s were in 1990.
Will it happen? Developing pitchers, especially left-handed starters is far from an exact science. and it is hard to say why pitchers like Randy Johnson were able emerge as superstars. With James Paxton, I hope he has the competitive drive and desire that Johnson had, but can he stay healthy too?
The Mariners chose to stay relatively quiet around the trade deadline, and with the 28th-ranked farm system in the MLB, it was probably a good idea not to buy. However, sometimes it’s the moves you don’t make that are the most important. You better believe there have been offers for James Paxton, who still undoubtedly has incredible upside. It’s that fact alone that should keep Jerry Dipoto from dealing him. After all, it was not until 1993 when Johnson was 30 years old that he got his numbers close to what his average was for his career (3.29 ERA 1.17 WHIP). For some reason, it just takes longer for lefty’s, and neither Paxton or Johnson have been exempt from that.
I realize this all may not sound great for fans who want to see James Paxton develop more quickly, so I’ll leave those that are disappointed with this fact. We saw a huge spike in k/9 innings in 1991, when Randy was 28 years old and really mastered the use of his slider. Randy went from a k/9 of below 8 for his first 3 seasons to a 10.19 that year. We’ve seen James utilizing his version of that same pitch more and with great effect lately, which inspired me to write this article.
James Paxton will enter the 2017 season as a 28-year-old flamethrowing lefty with more big league experience than Johnson. Time will tell the rest of the story.