There’s this thing bout sample sizes — they don’t really care whether the performance is good or bad, only that there’s tangible patterns to be derived from it. In the case of Seattle Mariners‘ James Paxton, unfortunately what you see just isn’t always going to be what you get.
But what is to be expected from the young lefty, the latest to throw his name into the hat of impact first-timers in MLB?
Well, certainly not the 1.50/0.92 ERA/WHIP and .172 BAA, of course — but you knew that already. There’s no doubt that Paxton has made quite the brilliant impression in the bigs so far, but despite his pedigree as a top-100 MLB prospect and one of the top organizational prospects for the M’s, what he’s done in the bigs is a little misleading.
His 3.25 FIP should tell you that much, and being that Safeco Field is already a park with a below average home run park factor at 0.871, that he’s allowed his two homers at a 12.5 percent fly ball rate is of some concern here. Of course, he’s mitigated most damage with an excellent 16.7 percent line drive rate and brilliant 2.44 GB/FB ratio, but here’s going back to that sample size: with only 24.0 IP to his name thus far, the only useful thing to be gleaned from all this is a guess at how things will normalize.
That is to say that, yes, he won’t necessarily give up home runs at the same rate of fly balls, but he’s unlikely to continue posting that line drive rate and ground ball ratio either. Though armed with good stuff that includes his go-to fastball averaging a strong 94.3 mph, Paxton isn’t an elite pitcher — at least not yet, so any hopeful comparisons to Stephen Strasburg and Jose Fernandez should probably be made with some caution here.
Why? Well, his 7.88 K/9 to 2.63 BB/9, though still quite good, suggests that he puts too many balls in play. As it so happens, his BABIP is an incredible .208. Yes, that is buoyed by the ground balls that he’s generated through his four starts, but even so, consider the fact that his BABIP was .338 through 145.2 IP in triple-A this season and that its hovered in the low-mid .300s throughout his minor league career.
Sorry, but big-league hitters are going to do better than this, which means if he can’t get guys out via strike three, there are inevitably going to be more balls put into play that turn into hits and line drives, and it means that his fortunate 88.5 percent strand rate is going to come tumbling down when the baseball gods decide they want to move on.
Still, does Paxton belong in the bigs? The answer at this point has to be an unequivocal yes, but as much as it might seem like dumping cold water on a hot streak, his four-start debut in the bigs can essentially thrown out here simply because too many of the numbers in the small samples just scream outliers given his performance in the minors.
And you know, a clean slate outlook isn’t necessarily a bad thing for the Mariners either.
After all, there’s nothing like heaping unrealistic expectations onto the shoulders of a young player, and while Paxton certainly won’t be given the same status as Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, to expect him to be a beacon of reliability in the middle of the rotation throughout his first full season would likely be a folly. He hasn’t shown nearly enough , and such expectations from the organization and fan base could go sour for a player rather quickly when, not if he hits that MLB learning curve.
I mean, it’s not as though the team hasn’t had its shares of ups and downs with former top prospects this season already, you know?