Mariners: Is James Paxton’s Breakout Finally Coming in 2017?

James Paxton has carried a ton of hype with him during his time with the Mariners.  But, could 2017 finally be the year he finally shines?

For years it seems that fantasy owners have waited for the long-predicted breakout season from James Paxton.  The enigmatic Mariners’ lefty has always possessed the arm talent to shine, but could never put it all together in one season. But, could 2017 finally be the year?

Paxton’s story is long told. The former fourth-round pick looked the part of a top prospect coming out of high school, eventually climbing the ranks to get on top-100 prospect lists. After doing well in the minors, Marines’ fans patiently anticipated his arrival in the big leagues. He debuted in 2013 but has never stuck in the big league thanks to injuries and ineffectiveness.

Heading into 2016, fantasy owners had an eye on him but a terrible spring performance had him ticketed for AAA and for most of the season. However, that early demotion may have been a career-altering move. While at AAA, Tacoma’s pitching coach offered that Paxton should change his arm slot in order to help tune his mechanics. This suggestion could not have gone better.

Paxton moved from throwiJng basically over the top to more of a three-quarters release. After learning to repeat that delivery, he would find himself being recalled by the Mariners in June. He finished the 2016 season with a 3.79 ERA/ 1.30 WHIP/117 K line over 20 starts. In June in and July, he posted ERAs over 4.00, but he was nearly unhittable to finish the season.

The new arm slot saw his fastball velocity to climb by nearly 2 mph. His fastball averaged 97 mph last season, ranking him behind only Nathan Eovaldi and Noah Syndergaard among league leaders. The uptick is velocity is clearly a positive sign, but the inclusion of a cutter also played into his success.

Paxton was mainly a fastball/curveball pitcher in his three previous major league stints, but the inclusion of a cutter last season did wonders for his game.  By upping his cutter use to nearly 20%, he added an element to his pitch mix that was just another wrinkle hitters that had to think about. Over the last four months of the season, batters did not post more than a .250 AVG against the pitch, allowing Paxton to have just another tool at his disposal.

The case usually with pitchers that increase their velocity is that command becomes an issue. Paxton was no stranger to command woes, but he was able to drop his BB/9 by nearly two walks last season. The change was his ability to attack hitters earlier in the count, career high 62% last season, and the ability to hit the outside corner more frequently.

The arm slot change is a tangible piece of evidence that speaks to his late season success and what should lead fantasy owners to more optimism. Over the last two months of the season, he notched a 3.20 ERA/56 K/7 BB/1.08 WHIP over 55 innings. This could serve as a sign of what may come next season, and he also carried a 2.80 FIP, so his peripherals support his solid numbers.

Outside of his command issues, the biggest bugaboos with Paxton are injury issues. He is no stranger to them, he strained a tendon in his finger in 2015 and suffered a left elbow contusion last season in August. If he can avoid troublesome injuries like these, all indicators point to him having a breakout season in 2017, but owners have to take it into account when targeting him.

Paxton will be 27-years-old next season, but it appears as though he has finally made the mechanical adjustments needed to get his career back on track with the Mariners. The increase in velocity, the improvement in command, playing in a pitcher’s park and the inclusion of a solid third pitch, all point to 2017 being the year he shines. Owners may have heard the song and dance before, but this is the year to target Paxton in drafts.