What will James Paxton bring to the Seattle Mariners in 2021?

SEATTLE - SEPTEMBER 24: James Paxton #65 of the Seattle Mariners pitches during the game against the Oakland Athletics at Safeco Field on September 24, 2018 in Seattle, Washington. The Athletics defeated the Mariners 7-3. (Photo by Rob Leiter/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
SEATTLE - SEPTEMBER 24: James Paxton #65 of the Seattle Mariners pitches during the game against the Oakland Athletics at Safeco Field on September 24, 2018 in Seattle, Washington. The Athletics defeated the Mariners 7-3. (Photo by Rob Leiter/MLB Photos via Getty Images) /
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Seattle Mariners James Paxton
James Paxton of the Seattle Mariners acknowledges the crowd after throwing a no-hitter during MLB game action against the Toronto Blue Jays at Rogers Centre on May 8, 2018, in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images) /

He’s back! Jerry Dipoto was surely working the phones once again on Saturday night, as news broke that James Paxton would be returning for a second stint with the Mariners on a one-year, $8.5M deal. The details of the incentives beyond the $8.5M base salary are worth noting, as Paxton could make an additional $750K for 10 appearances next season, and then another $750K for 20.

Now would be the time to file away the trade of Paxton to the Yankees as another win under Dipoto, as the three players the Mariners received in return for Paxton are still in the organization. The centerpiece of the trade, Justus Sheffield, will likely slot in right behind the newly minted Paxton in this year’s rotation.

During his first six Major League seasons in Seattle, Paxton was one of the best lefties in the league. His best season for the Mariners came in 2017 when he posted a sub-3 ERA (2.98) and a 2.61 Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP). Paxton had a strikeout rate of 28.3% that year as well, to go along with a 1.103 WHIP. He also threw a memorable no-hitter the next season on his native soil, while breaking 200 strikeouts in 2018 as well.

So, what will James Paxton bring (back) to the Mariners?

With James Paxton, the issue first and foremost has always been health. Paxton has yet to come near the 200 inning plateau thus far, and that is reflected in the terms of his contract, with the one-year and the appearance-based incentives. Paxton will need a healthy 2021 for this deal to work out for either side.

Injuries aside, he pitched well in his first year in New York. The stats were very similar to his 2018 season with the Mariners, so we won’t look that far into his 2019 season. Paxton’s abbreviated 2020 raised concerns, however, as the Yankees weren’t very keen on bringing him back this offseason.

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Paxton’s issue in 2020 was the fact that he was being hit harder and more often than ever before in his career. His opponent’s average exit velocity sat at 90.7 MPH, the highest mark of his career. Paxton’s HR/9 of 1.77 was also a career-worst. He only made five starts last year, but in those starts, he gave up 15 earned runs in 20.1 innings pitched.

His K/BB ratio dropped close to two points after he went to the Yankees. After allowing a batting average close to .200 for the Mariners, Paxton’s opponents’ average rose to .240 and then .280 in 2019 and 2020, respectively. In terms of hard-hit rate, his stint with the Yankees was the worst two seasons of his career.

If the Mariners want to see the same Paxton this year that they traded away back in 2018, then he must re-establish his command and presence that he brought during his first stretch with the M’s. I believe we will see the most success out of Paxton if he returns to the long, crossfire motion that brought him so much success towards the end of his first stint with the M’s. At times, it almost appeared as if he was throwing completely across his body. This led to Paxton finding a few more mile-per-hour in his fastball, occasionally hitting triple digits. Paxton would overpower hitters with nasty stuff from the left side, particularly in 2017 and 2018.

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I believe that the Mariners are getting a solid number two starter in James Paxton, barring any injury. If he stays healthy, he and Marco Gonzales would give the Mariners one of the best lefty combos in all of Major League Baseball at the top of their rotation. This signing should spark excitement and optimism among fans, as the M’s have brought in possibly the best left-handed arm on the market.

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