James Paxton's "Tipping Point"
Ever check the stats on 1989 Randy Johnson?

Spec says,


Why I'm the K-Pax skeptic:

And when I say skeptic, I mean I think he's much more likely to have a Bedard career than a Kershaw career.  That's still something of value, of course.

1) Paxton is 25.  It's not not like we don't have a pretty good idea of what he is.

2) He gives up lots of baserunners, consistently and not just sometimes.  Kentucky: 1.42 WHIP. Clinton: 1.34. Jackson 1.31. Tacoma 1.48. 

3) To make up for the walks and hits, he has to be extremely difficult to hit hard.  Can he sustain a low HR% and low ISO-against so as to survive his high WHIP?  Possbily.  And I expect that often he will.  But his Tacoma record (.122 ISO-against in 28 starts; PCL average .144) is not a great indicator. 

4) Is it possible that his WHIP in the majors will be a lot lower than it was in college and the minors?  Yes.  This is Doc's argument, I think.  That his BB% will drop a bunch against MLB hitters.  I don't rule that out, but I don't think we can tell anything from his first 24.0 IP.  His WHIP dropped compared to Tacoma because of a .203 BABIP, not because of a dramatic drop in walk rate.

5) There aren't a lot of guys who consistently have success while averaging 4+ pitches per plate appearance.  Obviously, that has been a huge problem for Bedard, who only once averaged more than 6.0 IP per start.  Scherzer and Darvish succeeded at 4+ P/PA in 2013, but they were striking out around 30% of hitters.  If Pax will see his K% jump up that high, then sure.  But it still looks like a problem to me.

I'm not advocating trading him.  He is very good, but he is not showing the hallmarks of a mega-star prospect to me.  I expect mixed results, but that's just my view.


All explained very simply:  "Randy Johnson 1992."  

The Big Unit always gave up tons and tons of baserunners, prior to 1993.  Before 1990, he even gave up WHIP's of 1.5+, with 7 strikeouts.

Love Spec's point-of-view and he could be right.  The fact that we're doing a point-by-point response is the highest compliment on SSI; his point-of-view is substantial and well worth consideration.

Maybe he'll be right.  If so, he can use it as a foam-rubber bat on me, like Gordon does with Tuisasosopo.  :- )

The next headline has nothing to do with Spec...


Can We Forget Stats for Two Seconds, Puh-LEEZE

Stow your numbers!  Here's what happens, kid.

  • A young flamethrowing LHP is wobbly on the mound, battling himself
  • The batters "work with" the umpire to "teach him to throw strikes" (read:  no swings until a pitch is teed up, and the umpire smirkingly endorses this)
  • When he finally does throw a strike, it's a 3-1 fastball up (home run)

It says here that James Paxton is moving past that tipping point.  

Being in the majors will HELP with this, because AAA umpires can be nauseatingly biased when they get mad at something.  


Conditions at Safeco and Conditions at Cheney

I've seen it happen.  Paxton is battling himself.  The batter knows, the benches know, everybody knows, that ump is ticked off and he isn't going to call a strike unless it's tee'd up.  CERTAINLY he isn't going to call a strike on a curve ball.

Being in the majors, the umpiring will be FAR more professional.  Major League umpiring -- and the QuesTec system -- is one factor in this equation.  It's a big one.  James Paxton will fight himself a whale of a lot less, if he's not ticked off out of his mind at the home plate umpire.


As a completely separate point:  all it takes is one converted ground ball -- Paxton throws 60% ground balls -- and Paxton is out of an inning that could have turned into 4 runs in Tacoma.  

You've seen it happen.  Paxton throws the ball pretty well, but a couple of grounders go through, and a couple of men walk, and BOOM just ONE ball off the fence, and it looks like four earnies in the box score.  It takes so little to avoid all that!

No, in the bigs one of those grounders is a GIDP, and next inning, the guy's in rhythm again.  Momentum builds, and he winds up with a good year.


IMHO, some Ferraris need to be on smooth asphalt.  There are certain golfers who play well on lousy courses, and other ones who need excellent conditions, right, Mo'?


DOM and DIS Starts

For all Dr. D's optimism ...  a flamethrowing LHP is entitled to two (2) mediocre years in the bigs, such as Gio Gonzalez.  I doubt Paxton will need them.  He'll have 6 or 8  or 10 disaster starts in 2014.  So will a lot of guys.

Ron Shandler tracks "DISaster starts" for pitchers.  League average is 24%, gentlemen.  The "benchmark" for star pitchers is anything under 20%.  That's 6-7 starts out of 32.


Randy Johnson was 28 years old, by the way, the last time he walked 6.2 men in the American League.  He got good at 29.

It says here, don't underestimate the "Randy Johnson Tipping Point."  Sandy Koufax looked really ugly, for a long time. then a few, subtle, things converged.

This isn't just rhetoric.  It's like talking about an NFL quarterback "having the light come on" - it a part of the fabric of the sport, and you can watch it occur.  We're seeing it occur with James Paxton.  So are the scouts, I'm sure.


Top LHP Fastballs - 2013

Pitcher FBv
James Paxton 94.9
Derek Holland 93.6
David Price 93.5
Chris Sale 93.1
Jon Lester 92.7
Clayton Kershaw 92.6
Gio Gonzalez 92.6

That's every LHP fastball over 92 MPH.  In general, the pitchers did okay.  

Everybody at SSI realizes that Paxton destroyed four playoff teams* in four starts.  Nobody realizes why, because nobody realizes just how special his stuff is.  They're like, "yeah, he's got live stuff, pretty much."  No.  James Paxton threw 70, 75% fastballs, basically right down the pipe, and he overmatched the MLB's elite.  

Forget the yakker, forget the 60% grounder rate.  Forget that weird "slurve" that angles down at a RHB's back foot, that looks like a hybrid between the two pitches.  Just the fastball is enough.

People don't get it, just how nuclear he is.

Supposing that a rookie hitter had 8 homers in September, and they averaged 461 feet?


Dr D






Take a look at Ron Guidy, for example. Bleech. High ratios and walk rates in the 5's and 6's per 9 until he finally put a good season together at age 25. In AA, at age 23, he walked 53 in 77 innings. He "improved' that to 37 walks in 62 AAA innings the following year. Twenty-five was also the age at which Sudden Sam McDowell finally harnessed his heat. He always walked a good number of batters, well over 4 per 9 until then. But he was Sudden Sam - if you didn't walk, he blew you away. And as far a lefties hard throwers go, Sam was actually pretty good control-wise compared to Guidry and others.
There certainly is a history of hard throwing lefties struggling with command until it finally all comes together - Suddenly - and in the mid 20's. Randy is the most eye popping example...maybe...Take a look at how scary Al Leiter was until...well into his 30's actually. At age 24, Leiter was walking 7.8 AAA hitters every 9 innings. Seriously, these guys make K-Pax look like Jamie Moyer when it comes to control.


I'm in the Spec camp on Paxton. That said, I'm a heck of a lot happier with James in the #5 SP slot that I was with Jeremy Bonderman.
I think he will have those 6-7 disastrous starts. And 6-7 dominant starts. And another 12-14 Bedard "five and dive" specials. That's a wonderful guy to have at the back of the rotation as long as he's cheap. Maybe he takes a step or two forward. Maybe he doesn't. Gotta make the investment (aka starts) to find out.


What a fun comp.  I knew there was a reason I hung out with you old guys.
K-Pax could have eaten Guidry for a snack on a piece of Melba toast with marmalade, but ... that comp is fresh.  Guidry, when he was a star, threw blizzards of fastballs ... I remember some Yankee book (Bronx Zoo?) saying "if he ever threw that changeup, hitters would screw themselves into the ground, but he doesn't need to."
Guidry had a few years of near-Pedro-like domination.  Very cool pitcher.


I see that season as being like the 10th-50th percentile outcomes for K-Pax.  Given 10 possible outcomes for Paxton, from worst to first, I see the MtGrizzly prediction as being outcomes 2, 3, 4, and 5.
And if so, how would that compare to Gio Gonzalez' first 25 starts at a 6.50 ERA, or Mark Mulder's rookie season at 5.44?
Mulder won 21 games in year two, finishing #2 in the Cy; what he had in common with K-Pax is the ground ball rate.

Brent's picture

I find that I can't totally disagree with Spec, because I highly respect his analysis. But I also think that Paxton has a higher upside than Bedard, even if only due to being bigger and stronger.
I'm old enough to remember Koufax. When he was a mere mortal. In his early twenties Koufax was a high strikeout, high walk pitcher. At 24 his cumulative SO/BB was 8.9/5.3, with a WHIP of 1.4 and a W/L record four games under .500. At 25, it went to 9.5/3.4, WHIP of 1.20. At 26, it was 10.5/2.8, WHIP of 1.03. At 27, he became Sandy flippin' Koufax , three CY's in four years with an MVP and two second place MVP finishes. Something flipped the switch. (Full disclosure, I remembered the situation but looked up the stats on B-Ref; you don't really think I had them memorized from 50 years ago did you? Not that WHIP as a stat even existed in the 1960's...)
I'm not saying Paxton will become Koufax - that's practically heresy. Or that he'll be another RJ. But I think that to state "he's 25, we know what he is" is just a bit premature.


That and his 4-seam horizontal movement being 4+/5+" average every one of those 4 games. He himself has said multiple times that he has just been more focused in MLB. If the walks were focus/mental and that changed for him when he came up then assuming he hasn't actually improved would be wrong. I'm not saying he has, but there's more evidence for that than him being worth half a win. I want someone to watch those four starts, then try to tell me half a win. Paxtons 4 game start and RJ's in Montreal: both 3-0, ridiculously good but Paxton was better. The big difference is in the 4.0 BB/9 minors to Randy's that with 62 innings of MiL dominance since '96 he whittled down to 6.5 BB/9. Randy scored 2-3 wins in 3 consecutive years that he led the league in Walks, '90-'92. Paxton is not going to lead the league in Walks and doesn't have the mechanical issues Randy was still working through. How is he not considered closer to '93 Randy than '92 Randy. That's how I see him. Not the inning totals, and probably not quite there in general, but with the abilities to get there still.
Paxton and Seager were the ZIPS projections I thought were lowest among Mariners. But if you start with the idea that "these ten guys are all half a win low of what seems reasonable to me". I could make 1 win+low cases for Seager, Cano (worst year since '08?) Saunders, Walker, Paxton, Zunino and especially Miller. Many are expected to have career low years. Yeah, at 26 or 27. Because they're Mariners? Millers MiL OPS is .925. That's .214 higher than ZIPS protects him to hit next year. .050 higher than Seagers MiL OPS, by the way, in 50 less games. Seager; fail to hit 20 HR for the first time since his rookie season? Um. Not if we can actually bench him a day...
Kyle Seager had an .801 OPS when he woke up Friday the 13th of September.   He would not be over .800 OPS the rest of the year,  going .094/.250/.132/.382 with a .135 BABIP the rest of the way.  Before that he hadn't had a game off since before his May 24th start, his second game off in the year.   Through that 2nd day off he was hitting .275/.344/.468/.812 with a .311 BABIP. He then played in all the Mariners remaining 115 games.
  The one game he didn't start after that he came in to the 7th to PH in a 0-0 game with 1 out and runners on 1st and 2nd on the 20th of September vs. the Angels.   He struckout swinging on 4 pitches but then Ackley beat the pitcher to 1st on a grounder Trumbo fielded.  Saunders followed with lining a 0-1 pitch to CF scoring 2.
The bottom of the inning started with the ball finding the new guy on the field and that new guy throwing the ball wide of first.  Trumbo went to 2nd on the throw.   2 unearned runs scored to end the shutout Ramirez had thrown to that point,  though he was on the bench when his pair of runners (10 pitch walk to Calhoun followed the error and ended his night) scored off Ruffin to tie it up.   Then Ackley dove at a grounder from Shuck at 2nd in the shallow outfield and threw from his knees to get an assist on the 3rd out of the inning.  They eventually lost the game in the 11th. After coming in on his day off to add his name to the goat drawing, he hit .100/.289/.167/.456 with a .136 BABIP. 8 Walks to 8 SO. But I think he needs a few more games off. Wedge did say fatigue was a team wide issue. Essentially.
This year with Bloomquist we won't have .286 OPS Triunfel starting 3b on Seagers day off and maybe let him have the whole day.   Through the 19th of September he had started 106 consecutive team games at 3b in which he hit .266/.340/.428/.767 with a .292 BABIP. Interestingly, the ZIPS projection has him with 678 PA (career high 695 in '13, looks like 3 or 4 more days off) of .299 BABIP for .264/.328/.414/.742 while failing to clear 20 HR for the first time since his rookie year.   That seems like a very low expectation. Do 26 year olds not age the same for the Mariners?


I said if he's going to start striking out nearly 30% of batters, Unit-like, then I won't fret about the walks or high pitch counts, but we haven't seen that from James yet.
My main point was that his very strong 24.0 IP in majors didn't really indicate the optimism that it's engendered:
Stat:  Tacoma | Seattle
HR%:  1.6 | 2.1
K% : 20.5 | 22.3
BB%:  9.1 | 7.5
P/PA: 4.07 | 4.02
ISO-agst: .122 | .127
WHIP: 1.48 | 0.92
BABIP: .340 | .203
Yes, the BB% dropped a bit, but otherwise the only real change was a dramatic reversal in BABIP. 
In other words, we can't really declare a "dominant" James Paxton from those 24.0 IP.
That's not the same thing as saying that "dominant" James Paxton won't ever emerge.  I'm just saying that he hasn't yet.
A guy with high pitch counts, high walk rate and K% in the low 20s -- rather than high 20s or low 30s -- is Bedard, not Unit.
Again, that's not saying I don't want him.


Gonzalez succeeds with a high pitch count and high walk rate and K% under 25%.  So, yes, it can be done.
Gonzalez has had BABIP well under .300 for all of his successful seasons, which seems to account for his ability to get away with that.  Plus, in his best season (2012) he had a freaky-low HR/FB of 3.9%.  When HR/FB reverted back to his norm in 2013, his ERA+ dropped from 138 to 113.
So, sure ... Gonzalez is a reasonable upside even without a "dominant" plateau-leap.  I'll take that.


Yep. It'll take an investment of 60-70 starts to see if he can take those steps or not.


Minor league numbers below the pipes:
WHIP --H/9-- HR/9--BB/9--K/9
Johnson 1.499/7.0/.5/6.5/9.5 (Includes some rehab work after becoming a ML regular I didn't tease out)
Paxton 1.382/8.4/.5/4.0/9.6
I would say the BABIP in September 2013 was lucky and there will be regression - if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes. But it was more a matter of lots and lots of ground balls induced because K-Pax had a crazy good heavy ball.
But to my less than fully trained eye, the comparisons between the two are eerily similar, down to their eye popping September callups at the age of 24.
Spec, you have more stats at your fingertips and so talk a different language, stats wise. So I learn something. You talk K%, I talk K/9. You talk P/PA, I talk BB/9. Seems to me It's not apples to oranges, but Delicious to Fujis. At any rate, Bedard, RJ, Guidry, or some cross between Billy Swift and Sam McDowell, I'm gonna like whoever Paxton becomes.
And I've learned to trust your judgement in working the numbers the way you do, so I'm seriously curious as to what I'm missing.


If Randy Johnson were coming out of AAA today, I would say "he will have a very hard time attaining consistent MLB success running a high WHIP and high pitch count unless he brings his K/9 well up to, say, 10+ K/9."
And he did.
I am saying the exact same thing about Paxton.
And he might.  I'm not saying he won't.
But we don't know that from his 2013 splash.  All we know from his 2013 splash is that his BABIP did a complete reversal.  He was not blowing away 10 K/9.
[Yes, sorry I get focused on K% rather than K/9.  I think K% is a bit more accurate, but I know it's not what folks are used to seeing.  P/PA is just pitch count: pitches per plate appearance.  When it's around 4 or above, it is hard for a pitcher to go deep into games without a ton of strikeouts or some good fortune.]
I totally agree that James Paxton at the end of 2011 and the end of 2012 was "dominant."  I loved that Paxton, and I hyped him up as much as anyone, and ranked him no lower than #3 both years.  I was very, very close to ranking him #2 ahead of Taijuan in 2013, as you can still read here.
But that guy tends to disappear, as he did in the first half of 2012 and pretty much all of 2013.  So I've developed some skepticism.  And his 2013 MLB results don't assuage it, even though they were very impressive in many ways, because they don't show progress where I think the issues are.
Hope that helps.


I will agree with Doc from above that we'll take either Paxton that you guys are describing... I just hope either of your Paxton's shows up in April, so the big bloggers don't want his head by May.


... there is somebody (cool) on the other side of the argument.  Keep it comin' Spec. 
I just feel bad for yer, knowing what's gonna happen ... :- )  Actually that's the whole point though right?  You win either way...

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