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Smash Or Pass: Will the Real James Paxton Please Stand Up?

The fanbase probably doesn’t want him back, but he might be a good fit.

MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers at Boston Red Sox Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to Smash or Pass, an offseason series in which we examine various free agents and trade targets to determine whether they make sense for the Red Sox. Today, we’re taking a look at someone you’re already pretty familiar with, with a little help from Slim Shady.

My name is (what?)

He’s left-handed pitcher James Paxton, hailing from Lander, Canada. He’s best known for his time with the Mariners, but you likely know him from his recent stint in Boston. He’s been mentioned as a candidate to return to the 2024 Red Sox, and while fans will groan at the thought, it might not be the worst idea.

Guess who’s back, back again.

Given the fact that Paxton is even associated with the 2023 Red Sox rotation, I’d assume the prevailing opinion is that no, he’s not very good. After diving into his season, I’ll push back against that sentiment. If you break Paxton’s season in half, you’ll see two different pitchers.

We’ll start by looking at the Paxton of old. At his best, he dominated hitters with his fastball in the zone, for whiffs and called strikes. When the fastball is on, he uses a hard cutter, curveball, and changeup to keep hitters off balance.

Over his first ten starts of the season, Paxton threw 56 innings with a 2.73 ERA and a 29% strikeout rate. It may sound like hyperbole, but he looked like the James Paxton of old. His fastball averaged almost 96 MPH, he commanded the pitch well, and hitters whiffed at a 25% clip. 70% of his four-seamers resulted in strikes, putting Paxton in control of each at-bat. It wasn’t just the fastball though, he also placed the cutter masterfully on the edges of the zone, returning a 38% whiff rate in the first half. He wasn’t touching 100 MPH with the fastball as he could in his heyday, but it’s not a stretch to say he looked like the same guy.

He’s chokin’ now, everybody’s joking now.

Unfortunately, that’s not all there is to the story. In the second half of his season, the wheels started to fall off. It wasn’t unexpected as Paxton was coming off Tommy John surgery, but it was disappointing nonetheless. He lost some velocity as the season progressed, but the real difference was with his off-speed pitches. BaseballSavant labels pitches in different zones based on how far from the strike zone they are. Here’s a look at the distribution of Paxton’s cutter in each half of the season.

Ideally, Paxton would be throwing his cutter over and around the plate. During the second half of the season, he lost the feel for the pitch and started throwing more non-competitive pitches as seen in the amount of “chase” and “waste” pitches thrown. Unfortunately for Paxton, major league hitters are really good. If you can’t show you can throw a pitch for a strike, they’ll start looking for something else, and when they have an idea of what’s coming they’ll be ready to punish it. That’s exactly what happened. The swing rate on Paxton’s cutter dropped 15%, and the whiff rate dropped 17%. Hitters hunted more fastballs with the decreased velocity, and Paxton couldn’t dominate in the zone as he did earlier in the season.

Will the real James Paxton please stand up?

The reality is that the real James Paxton is probably somewhere between his two 2023 halves. On one hand, many say the second season after Tommy John surgery is when a pitcher should be back to 100%. On the other hand, Paxton is 35 and hasn’t been able to avoid injury for several years. He’s probably not going to throw 180 shutdown innings, but he might be able to throw 120.

Enough Eminem, just give me his 2023 stats.

1st Half: 56 IP, 2.73 ERA, 41 H, 64 K, 14 BB, 0.98 WHIP

2nd Half: 40 IP, 6.98 ERA, 52 H, 37 K, 19 BB, 1.775 WHIP

Total: 96 IP, 4.50 ERA, 93 H, 101 K, 33 BB, 1.313 WHIP

Why would he be a good fit for the Red Sox?

The Red Sox missed out on the big fish in the pitching market, Yoshinobu Yamamoto. It’s no secret that the team needs rotation help, and there’s not one player on the market that turns them into an instant contender. Jordan Montgomery is a good option, but despite his perceived market value, his ceiling isn’t all that high. Although the innings he’ll provide are certainly valuable, I think the team that lands him will be disappointed with his lack of dominance. Even if the Sox do wind up with Montgomery, they need more oomph. More pizzazz. A starter who can take the mound and shut down an opposing lineup when the offense is going through a slump. Paxton is a high-risk signing as he hasn’t consistently been at the top of his game in several years. However, with the market for pitching looking like it currently does, the Red Sox will need to cash a lottery ticket or two if they want to become immediate contenders.

Why would he not be a good fit for the Red Sox?

There’s a real chance that Paxton will throw 30 innings in 2024 before getting injured yet again. As we saw last season, even a good bullpen will struggle if the rotation can’t keep up its end of the bargain by providing innings.

On top of that, if Montgomery or Shoto Imanaga is a real target, do the Red Sox want three lefties in the rotation? I don’t know, but if Paxton is what’s preventing you from signing one of those other guys, he may not be the right choice.

What would he cost?

A team would have to be insane to give Paxton a long-term deal. At this point in his career, Paxton is likely going to be signing a one-year deal that might include an option or two. Paxton will probably earn a similar amount to Luis Severino ($13MM) or Jack Flaherty ($14MM), although I wouldn’t be surprised to see a time shell out a bit more due to his ceiling and the current pitching supply in free agency.

Smash or pass?

If Paxton is the only addition to the rotation and he can’t stay healthy, we might as well turn our attention to 2025. Still, a good portion of the fanbase is already resigned to another last-place finish, so if that’s the case, why not take a shot on a player who was once one of the most dominant in the sport?

Personally, I don’t want 2024 to be yet another “bridge year”. To prevent that, the Red Sox will need a little luck. Chances are, one of the additions to the rotation will be a reclamation project. Why not Paxton? He’s familiar with Boston, he showed he can still perform, and he isn’t going to be a long-term commitment. Among the pitchers on the market, he has one of the highest, if not the highest ceiling. While it isn’t the flashiest signing, and it will certainly ruffle the feathers of the fanbase, I’m happy to roll the dice on Paxton for 2024.