Always A Prospect, Never A Bride: The Ongoing Saga of Paxton & Walker

When the season started, it was Felix, Iwakuma, Miley, Walker, and Karns, with James Paxton relegated to Tacoma to work on his fastball, work on his command, and work on his fastball command.  As the rotation started to be hacked to bits with injuries, Paxton was thankfully the first one called up.  On June 1st, he made his 2016 debut with the Mariners; it was far from ideal.

But, he was throwing regularly in the high 90s, sometimes touching triple digits, and you could see his two months in Tacoma made a world of difference.

And, aside from a quick trip to the DL in mid-August – thanks to a line drive off his throwing arm in the 9th inning of a game he was dominating – Paxton proved to be remarkably healthy (also, I guess, aside from some fingernail issues he was having late in the season that cut some starts short).

What we never really got out of Paxton, though, was any sort of consistency.  Good start, good start; bad start, bad start; good, bad, good, bad, and so on.  I suppose your take-away from Paxton’s 2016 season depends on your expectations.  At a baseline level, my hopes were that he’d just stay healthy, and avoid any prolonged stints on the DL.  In that sense, he mostly succeeded.  He does have that improved fastball, and his breaking ball looked much better than in years past.  He’s getting sort of a Mr. Snappy thing going against right handers that can be overpowering at times.  But, he also gets dinked and dunked to death, and when things start going downhill in a start, they snowball until he’s left you with no chance of winning.

James Paxton is, of course, an unfinished product.  It’s too bad we’ll never know how his season would’ve finished had he not taken that line drive off his throwing arm on August 7th.  That one had all the makings of a complete game, which would’ve come directly on the heels of an 8-inning, 4-hit, 1-run performance against the Red Sox (that we would go on to blow in the 9th).  With those back-to-back starts (and 3 of 4 if you go back a little further, to his 7-inning, 1-run win in Toronto), it looked like it was FINALLY starting to click for him.  Now, whether or not that was just a random quality stretch, we’ll never know.  But, obviously, when he returned from the DL, he had three consecutive starts of 5 innings or less, as he worked his way back from injury.  It wasn’t until his September 11th start where we saw the Good Paxton again, which he carried through to the end of the year (with an enticing potential start in the Wild Card game that was not to be).

I actually have a lot of high hopes for Paxton going into 2017, which is probably a mistake.  But, God damn, I mean, it’s all there!  He HAS the stuff!  He has ACE stuff!  He can BE that #2 starter I was talking about in my Iwakuma post.  If he can put it together for a full season, hell, he could be our #1 starter in all but name only come 2018!  All Star Game appearances, Cy Young Awards, the sky is the limit for Paxton.

But, haven’t we been saying this more or less since 2013?  Usually, it’s injuries that prevent him from reaching his full potential – and believe me, we’re not out of those woods by any stretch of the imagination either – but even when he’s healthy, he has a tendency to get knocked around.

What he’s done that’s encouraging – as long as it continues – is he’s reduced his walks and increased his strikeouts. Before this year, he averaged 3.5 walks per 9 innings; in 2016 he averaged 1.8.  Before this year, he averaged 7.4 strikeouts per 9 innings; in 2016 he averaged 8.7.  Before this year, he had a 2.09 strikeout to walk ratio; in 2016 he bumped that up to 4.88.  These are all very positive trends.  He’s got a better handle of the strikezone.  Fewer free passes should, over time, equate to better overall performances.  But, there’s also a bit of a downside to that:  before this year, he gave up an average of 7.7 hits per 9 innings; in 2016, he gave up 10.0.  Which means his WHIP actually went UP this year, compared to his combined 2013-2015.

Part of that is just dumb luck.  Before this year, his babip-against was .271; in 2016 it skyrocketed to .347.  That’s what I mean when I say he was dinked and dunked to death; balls that formerly found gloves this year found holes.  As such, that inflated his batting average against (.229 before, .279 this year) and his OPS against (.641 before, .717 this year).  But, there was also an uptick in his slugging against (.340 before, .406 this year).  That goes back to being in the strike zone more; maybe he was a little TOO in the strike zone, if you catch my drift.

Also, not for nothing, and I don’t really know how to place this, but in his combined 30 starts from 2013-2015, the team committed 10 errors behind him; in 2016, in 20 starts, the team committed 9.  Part of that is his defense not exactly helping him, but part of that is also his pitches being more hittable, and being put in play more often.  So, I dunno, maybe it’s a wash.

All in all, I’m going to say that 2016 was a net-positive for Paxton, but there are still enough concerns that he won’t put it all together in 2017.  Or EVER, for that matter.  He’ll need to continue to work on his fastball command and maybe miss a few more bats per game to get his numbers down enough to be a real force in this league.

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As for Taijuan Walker, the hype behind him going into this year couldn’t have been higher.  National pundits were ALL OVER Walker this year as a player to watch.  As a guy ready to take the next step into superstardom.  It obviously didn’t go according to plan.

For the month of April, he was right on track.  But, then injuries started to creep into the equation.  Neck spasms in early May, and an ongoing foot injury through the summer.  In mid-June, a start was cut short.  Then again on July 5th.  We shut him down for a spell, then put him on the DL after his comeback when he still wasn’t fully right.  Walker returned in early August, had one bad start, then was sent down to Tacoma.  Partly to work back into rotation shape, but partly because the team felt he needed an attitude adjustment.  Walker returned in late August for the stretch run, had one amazing start on September 13th (complete game shutout, 3-hitter, no walks, 11 strikeouts), but other than that wasn’t really much to write home about.

Now, Walker is considering having offseason surgery.  If it’ll fix his foot, I hope he does it.  I know there’s probably a risk of the surgery going bad, or him still having problems post-op, so I’ll defer to his doctors on that.  But, I’ll just say that Walker’s 2016 left me MUCH less hopeful of him taking his game to the next level.

Like Paxton, Walker first came up to the Majors in 2013.  Like Paxton, Walker has had his share of injuries.  Unlike Paxton, Walker made it through 2015 mostly unscathed, which is the reason why everyone had such high hopes for his 2016.  Once a guy gets a full season under his belt, the next step is an improvement in performance.  But, it really wasn’t to be.  Aside from a few remarkable starts, it was the same ol’ Walker.

Remember all those averages I pulled for Paxton, showing his numbers from before compared to this year?  Well, for Walker, all those numbers are essentially the same.  In fact, Walker’s babip against went DOWN (.269 in 2016 compared to .288 before).  While his batting average and on-base percentages were all the same, there was a big uptick in slugging percentage (.462 in 2016 compared to .391 before).  Plain and simple, Walker got rocked in 2016, more than he’s ever been rocked before.  His fastball velocity fluctuated like a mad dog, his command of the changeup came and went, and as a result, you never knew what you were going to get out of him from start to start.

It’s part of the reason why the team sent him down to Tacoma to work on things.  Hell, the strategy worked for Paxton to start the season!  If the team wasn’t so absolutely desperate for starting pitching in the stretch run, they would’ve been wise to keep him in Tacoma longer.  As it stands, you have to wonder if he’ll win a spot in the Major League rotation in 2017.

I’ll get more into this in my Ariel Miranda post, but I think the final rotation spot is going to come down to Miranda and Walker (and, sure, Karns and some others, but most realistically it’ll be Miranda and Walker).  There’s no doubt in my mind one of the top priorities for the Mariners this offseason will be to pick up another veteran starter, either via free agency or trade, to mix in there with Felix, Iwakuma, and Paxton.  That leaves one opening for multiple pitchers, and I don’t think it would be the worst idea for Walker to get a little more work in Tacoma.  Just to make sure his mechanics are in order, so when he comes back to Seattle (for the games that REALLY matter), we’ll have a better idea of which Taijuan Walker we’ll be seeing from start to start.

Paxton and Walker seem to be joined at the hip in their journey with the Seattle Mariners.  Always on the cusp of making it big, but always falling short for one reason or another.  The team almost certainly hasn’t given up on either of these guys, but one thing to keep in mind as the offseason progresses:  don’t be shocked if one or both of these guys are traded away.  Truth be told, their potential would make such a scenario as heartbreaking as can be.  But, I’m beginning to have my doubts that they’ll ever REACH that potential.  And, we might be better off getting rid of them when their value is at its highest (although, to be fair, Walker’s value was probably at its highest at this point last year).

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