There has been a lot of warranted criticism surrounding the Red Sox this past week or two, from the bats being sound asleep to the defense throwing and kicking away games on a nightly basis. One area of the team that has not been to blame is the starting pitching. Since May 12th, not coincidentally the day that James Paxton joined the Red Sox rotation, the starting pitchers have a 3.76 ERA, 6th in all of baseball, with the 2nd highest K-rate (9.54 per nine).
However, when Chris Sale walked off the mound with the trainer two weeks ago today, followed by the news of a stress reaction in his shoulder blade putting the rest of his season in jeopardy, there went the player who was likely most important to the team’s 2023 success. Even the strongest area of the squad seemed capped in how far it could take them.
As the rotation shakes out beyond Sale, there are two pitchers who I believe, someday, could have high ceilings as a starter. Garrett Whitlock has shown breakout potential out of the bullpen but it remains to be seen if he can be a workhorse as a starter for an entire season. He has put together some excellent single-game efforts (including his past two starts) but in Whitlock’s 16 career starts, only five of those have been Quality Starts and he has dealt with injuries in three of the past four seasons. Brayan Bello has improved a lot this season and has pitched deeper into games recently, but he just turned 24 years old and is still evolving as a pitcher. Geoff Pontes of Baseball America told us on The Red Seat Podcast last week that he believes Bello is a 60-grade mid-rotation starter, with a ceiling of a #2 pitcher. Neither of them is quite there yet.
Tanner Houck’s career OPS allowed each time through the order jumps from .498, to .722, to .944. This season has been no different with a .486, .837, and .901 OPS allowed, respectively. As far as the #5 starter goes, no one seems to be interested in claiming that. Kutter Crawford has a 7.11 ERA as a starter this season (19 innings), Corey Kluber 6.26 (41 2/3 innings) and Nick Pivetta 6.30 (40 innings).
That leaves James Paxton, a pitcher who is a lot of things. He’s the pitcher most likely to get injured, the pitcher most likely to get traded at the deadline, and the pitcher most likely to become the ace of the staff in 2023. Starting optimistically, let’s begin with the third possibility:
If a pitcher has shown certain skills in the past, there’s an increased likelihood of it happening again. From 2016 to 2019, with the Mariners and Yankees, Paxton put together a really nice stretch of seasons.
Paxton was consistent throughout these four seasons, his best ERA being 2.98 in 2017 with Seattle and his worst being 3.82 in 2019 with New York, which happened to be the season where the league ERA was 4.51 on average, the highest since 2006 in the Steroid Era. He contributed at least 3.5 fWAR in all four seasons, with 2017 being a 4.4 WAR season. Depending on your definition of “ace”, he might have been one of those in all four seasons, as a top-30 pitcher in a league with 30 teams.
Fangraphs WAR among Starting Pitchers (min: 120 IP)
2016: 3.6 WAR, t-17th SP
2017: 4.4 WAR, 11th SP
2018: 3.7 WAR, 21st SP
2019: 3.5 WAR, t-30th SP
So far this season, Paxton is trending that way again. Over his six starts, he’s allowed 2 runs or less in five of them, and struck out 8+ batters in four starts. The team has allowed him to throw 98 pitches or more in four starts, maxing out at 108 pitches. In those six starts, his velocity has held strong averaging between 95.3 and 96.3 mph in each start. The arm is holding up, for now.
Paxton’s secondaries have excelled, as well. His Curve, Cutter, and Change all have allowed an opponent’s BA of .200 or less, and each pitch has 10+ mph of separation from his fastball.
While his Stuff+ is just 95 on Eno Sarris’ model, his Location+ is 102. The Location+ of his Fastball is 106 and Cutter is 104, and with Paxton throwing those two pitches 75% of the time his command has been very good. The result has been a 25.6 K-BB% which is fourth among starting pitchers in all of baseball, only behind Jacob deGrom, Spencer Strider, and Kevin Gausman, entering play on Wednesday.
The walks are low, the strikeouts are high, and Paxton’s FIP and xFIP are identical to his ERA. What we’ve seen so far is for real.
For How Long?
History also tells us that James Paxton is going to get hurt at some point this season, in the same manner that we should have expected it with Chris Sale. Hopefully, Paxton’s hamstring injury in spring training, which kept him out until May 12th already got this out of the way. However, looking at the previous five seasons, it’s not likely that he’ll make it three-and-a-half months without going down again. The similarities between Sale and Paxton, both 34 years old, in that sense are striking.
On What Team?
After losing two of three to the Rockies at home, the Red Sox are five games out of the third wild card spot in the American League. I think it’s fair to say that they are more likely to be sellers than buyers at the trade deadline, although it remains to be seen whether Chaim Bloom would still be the one doing the selling. If things stay as is, Paxton would be their most valuable trade chip. A year ago, the team chose to trade neither of their top two trade chips in J.D. Martinez and (a banged up) Nathan Eovaldi, which kept them above the Competitive Balance Tax threshold.
Paxton signed a unique deal before the 2022 season, giving assurances to both sides. He would receive $6 million for what amounted to a lost season a year ago. The Red Sox declined a 2-year, $26 million option, but Paxton opted-in to the 2023 season in Boston for just $4 million. As a result, the two-month rental would cost a contending team only $1.3 million for a potential front-of-the-rotation lefthander. Paxton doesn’t have a ton of playoff experience, but he did get three starts in the 2019 postseason with the Yankees, allowing a 3.46 ERA in 13 innings, walking seven and striking out 20. That is a profile that should return a solid prospect package, led by a close-to-MLB piece.
Perhaps the Red Sox will go on a run over the next six weeks. With Whitlock, Bello, Houck, and Crawford all being right-handed pitchers, it would be great to have a southpaw be the unexpected anchor of the rotation in the absence of Chris Sale. If the lack of defense and timely hitting continues, Paxton will be throwing for a real playoff team in August, like the Diamondbacks ... or the Marlins.