If it were not for a left lat strain that he suffered last season, this article would have probably never been written because James Paxton would have likely already “broken out.” The strain did happen though and Paxton only threw 74 big league innings in 2014. As a result, he can be had at the bare minimum in standard fantasy baseball leagues at a 26th round pick according to fantasypros.com, which makes him a 2015 breakout candidate.
So far in his young career, James Paxton has thrown 98 major league innings and has a 2.66 ERA (3.27 FIP, 3.43 xFIP) to go with a 1.13 WHIP, 20.2 strikeout percentage and an extremely impressive 55.8% ground ball rate; and he throws hard, really hard. His average fastball velocity of 94.4 MPH was 14th among all starting pitchers who threw at least 70 innings last season, and it was the fastest among all left-handed starters.
Admittedly, a 98 inning sample size is small, but ground ball and fly ball rates have been proven to normalize relatively early though and he has a nice track record of generating ground balls in the minors to go with it.
There are a few cautionary flags that need to be mentioned, but that is why your using your last round pick on him, right?
First, the health is the big question mark. The lat is critical to shoulder function and if he tweaks something on a brisk April day we could see a repeat of 2014. That being said, he looked great when he returned last August – he did not lose any velocity on his fastball. Outside of taking an awkward fall in February, he has been healthy and is scheduled to be a key part of the Seattle Mariners rotation right from the get-go in 2015.
Second, James Paxton has to regress. His 6.4 home-run-to-fly-ball percentage and .270 BABIP from last year both suggest at least a little regression. I doubt he repeats the 3.04 ERA he posted last season, but I doubt it rises to catastrophic levels either (if I were projecting I’d likely have him finishing 2015 in the 3.40-3.60 range).
The ground ball rate is legit. James Paxton plays in what has traditionally been one of the tougher ball parks to hit home runs out of (although last year this was not the case). Also, he has one of the best defenses in baseball behind him (the Mariners .712 Defensive Efficiency last season tied the Cincinnati Reds for the best in MLB).
If Paxton can stay healthy, then he should finish 2015 as a top-50 starting pitcher and his upside could be even greater.