What 1993 and James Paxton have in common . . . and what they don’t

Paxton Fanfest 2016

James Paxton at Fanfest 2016

1993 was a pivotal year in the history of the Seattle Mariners.  The previous year was a disaster, as general manager Woody Woodward traded young pitchers Bill Swift, Mike Jackson and Dave Burba for Giants slugger Kevin Mitchell.  Mitchell was an unenthusiastic performer and with the young relievers stripped from the bullpen, the Mariners were a disaster.  Their 64-98 season cost Bill Plummer his job.

Plummer’s departure, however, made way for the arrival of Lou Piniella.  Piniella made it clear things would be different.  The team that took the field in the Kingdome in ’93 had many of the heroes of ’95.  Griffey and Buhner, Tino Martinez and Rich Amaral.  Edgar Martinez had torn his hamstrings in the last pre-season game in Vancouver, after winning his first batting title in 1992, but he would be back as a DH in ’94. The other hero of ’95 who returned was Randy Johnson.

Johnson was in his sixth year in the majors, his fifth year with the M’s.  Let’s just say he was unique.  The tallest man in major league baseball, he threw hard, had a slider with something nasty and loved heavy metal music.  But he was wild, leading the American League in walks from 1990-92 with 120, 152 and 144 respectively.  If only he could put it all together, Johnson could be a monster. But in 1992 Johnson was outpitched by soft-tossing lefty Dave Fleming, who went 17-10 and finished third in Rookie of the Year balloting.

It would never happen again.

In 1993 at age 29, after working with Nolan Ryan in the off-season Randy Johnson appeared a different pitcher. He won 19 games, struck out 308 batters and finished second in  Cy Young voting. It was the beginning of Randy Johnson as a Hall of Fame pitcher.  From 1993-2004 Johnson would finish first or second in Cy Young voting eight times and make all-star appearances nine times.

In a September 2016 story with Tim Rodmaker of Professional Baseball Strength and Conditioning, Johnson credited his off-season sessions with Ryan for helping him find a new delivery that helped him control his extra long limbs.  Ryan taught him to be more aggressive, control the game more effectively, and make clear to batters that he was in charge. Ryan also taught Johnson more about the importance of being a teammate.

2018 is James Paxton’s sixth season, also his age 29 year. His big year might have been 2016 when with a change in his arm slot and a big tick up in his fastball velocity and better command of his pitches, Paxton became a much better pitcher. But, like Johnson in ’93, this year is the most important of Paxton’s tenure with the Mariners.  My belief is that progress by the big lefty is critical and makes him, in many respects, the most important player on the team.

Pitching has changed so much since 1993.  The critical role of the starting pitcher has diminished somewhat as dominant bullpens have assumed a larger role.  So comparing Johnson to Paxton maybe doesn’t make sense.  Johnson had 14 years of over 200 inning pitched. Between 1993-2002, Johnson missed 200 twice, once because of the strike in 1994, and in the season of his back surgery in 1996.  Paxton hasn’t thrown 150 innings in any of his years.  Johnson was 6’10” of angry, volatile rocket fuel who not only won 303 games, but is tied for fifth all-time for most career hit batters. Roger Clemens at 14 and Don Drysdale at 19 are pikers by comparison. James Paxton isn’t that guy. He may be tall, but angry he isn’t.

But like Johnson in ’93, the Mariners are putting a lot of hope on the tall Canadian’s shoulders. He’s received a lot of accolades from his GM as being among the top ten pitchers in the American League. Some of the stats support this. Of course you’re going to have to dig around for them, because he doesn’t qualify for many of the basic numbers and doesn’t appear on the ESPN or Baseball Reference leader boards.  Not enough innings pitched. Yes he is 10th in the AL in pitcher WAR, but still a long way from the league leaders.  Jeff Sullivan wrote a great article in August about Paxton leading the American League in wOBA or batted ball speed.  And that was just before the big man went on the DL for the second time in August after a pectoral strain.  He’d miss three starts and never pitch well in a game for the rest of 2017. Yes, Paxton has great rate stats, but they don’t measure loss to the team when Christian Bergman or Max Povse are taking his starts, or the number of starts when Paxton is regaining his mechanical consistency after  time away on the DL.

I can talk until I’m blue in the face about the Mariners rotation, whether it’s passable, or decent, or downright terrible. But if there is a chance for the Mariners to make the playoffs in 2018, it begins with James Paxton. For the years 1993-1998, those remaining  of Johnson’s career with the Mariners, The Big Unit was surrounded by a plethora of lesser lights-a declining Chris Bosio, Jeff Fassero, Tim Belcher, reinforced by Jamie Moyer in 2017, and a highly volatile bullpen. Johnson was the guy who led the rest of the pitchers, alongside an admittedly brilliant offensive cast, to the playoffs in ’95 and again in ’97 in spite of the mediocrity of the rest of the pitching.

We can also argue about the 2018 offense, whether it is average, a little better than average or really good, but unless the pitching staff can perform it won’t matter how many runs this team scores, they will lose. A quality pitching staff begins with a legitimate ace, and Paxton has to be that guy.  Pitchers become aces by being on the field. Click those ESPN WAR stats again.  Check the top five.  None has less than 193.1 innings. By comparison, Paxton ranks 47th in innings pitched.

Look, I’m not suggesting Paxton is a malingerer, a slacker, or anything of the kind.  Perhaps the hiring of Dr. Lorena Martin as director of high performance will make the difference, or maybe Paxton will figure it out.  But the bottom line is no Paxton hurts the team.  He needs to be on the field. The Mariners have no shot without him.

This is not only a huge year for Paxton as a Mariner. He’s just avoided his second year of arbitration for a tidy $4.9 million.  2019 will be his final year under Mariner control before he hits free agency. Will he enter the market as a 31-year old established star, or will he limp onto the big stage long on potential but ever-injured like Brett Anderson?  Will he be Clayton Kershaw as he walks unscathed on to the big free agent stage in 2019, or will he merely be another can on the scratched and dented aisle in 2020?

James Paxton isn’t likely to be a Hall of Fame pitcher.  But it isn’t difficult to see he is the leader of this pitching staff.  In 2018 he must take the next step forward by being on the field, just as Randy Johnson made the same leap at the same age.  To me that means at least 30 healthy starts and a minimum of 180 innings pitched.  Just to compare, that puts him number 15 in the American League using 2017 stats, just behind Jason Hammel and just ahead of Jason Vargas, not anywhere near the AL’s top ten.

The M’s will fare as well in 2018 as James Paxton does.  The day his name appears on the DL is the day their hopes for a successful season are likely over.  Mark it down.

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