Astros: Big Maple Time? Examining the James Paxton fit

As free agency continues to wind down, it appears the Houston Astros might be done making moves for the time being. The offseason for Houston consisted of losing fan-favorite George Springer, retaining Michael Brantley, and having some moderate turnover in the bullpen. The Astros still project to be the AL West favorite with their current roster, but there are still some question marks in key spots – including the backend of the starting rotation.

It wasn’t too long ago that Houston’s starting rotation in 2018 and 2019 consisted of Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Zach Greinke – easily the best rotation in all of baseball. But now with Verlander out with Tommy John surgery, Greinke inching closer to 40 years old and Cole pitching for the evil empire, Houston’s rotation is no longer one that other teams fear.

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Don’t get me wrong, the Astros starting rotation is still very very good – Framber Valdez might be an ace in the making, Lance McCullers projects to have a great season in a contract year, Cristian Javier showed some great stuff last year and Greinke is, well, Greinke. They have great balance in their rotation, but it would be nice for James Click to get another experience starting pitcher in the rotation.

The Houston Astros staff is building toward the future, but a signing of  James Paxton would benefit them now.

There’s no number one starter left on the market, and it doesn’t seem like Houston would be willing to pay #1 starter money right now. The Astros should go looking for value on a starting pitching with some

huge upside. Signing James Paxton, “The Big Maple,” might be just what the doctor ordered.

Paxton’s 2019 Season

The 32-year-old left-hander from the great white north is an experience starter, who’s had success with both the Seattle Mariners and the New York Yankees.

In 2019 with the Yankees, Paxton went 15-6 with a 3.82 ERA and averaged 11.5 strikeouts per nine innings. Paxton had four double-digit strikeout games, and finished the season winning his last 10 starts with a 2.25 ERA in those games. He was also good in the postseason, where he stifled the Twins in the ALDS and shut down the Astros in the Bronx during Game 5 of the ALCS.

2020 wasn’t kind to Paxton (or anyone for that matter) as he went to the injured list after only six starts with a forearm strain and ended up missing the rest of the season. He’s coming in as a free agent with a potential chip on his shoulder to have a bounce back season. Considering his pitch talent and ceiling, perhaps Houston should try to capitalize on that.

Profile

Paxton has an interesting pitch profile that is certainly appealing in some areas. The lefty Canadian only has three pitches he goes to, with his fastball being used in 60% of his pitches (his velocity is between 92 to 95 MPH). The remaining 40% of his pitches are cutters and curveballs, which are both essentially his knockout pitch. Paxton likes to attack the zone early with his fastball, get ahead count and then start to bury the ball with his elite cutter and curveball for outs and strikeouts.

Paxton has a lot of action on his cutter and curveball, as he was in the upper 80 percentile in whiff rates on both those pitches. For his career, hitters typically hit under the ball on his pitches 33% of the time (MLB Average 24%) so he generates a ton of pop ups. However, hitters barreled the ball on Paxton more than 10% of the time (MLB Average 7%) and he gave up 23 HRs in 150 Innings in 2019. Overall, hitters in 2019 batted .266 against his fastball, .254 against this cutter and .178 against the curveball. It is certainly is feast or famine with James Paxton, someone who can get strikeouts in bunches but can also give up some big hits.

Pairing Paxton with Brent Strom would be fascinating, as Strom usually gets the best out of pitchers and Paxton’s ceiling is still pretty high. A good case study of this would be what Strom did with Wade Miley in 2019.

While Miley and Paxton are not necessarily the same type of pitchers, they’re both lefties that depend on their off speed pitches to get guys out. While with the Astros, Miley threw his cutter as his primary pitch at 45%, with his fastball and curveball at 15% and 10%, respectively. Miley benefited from this mixture of pitches under Strom and, although he fell apart at the end to historic proportions, there was a period of time that season where Miley was arguably the best pitcher on the Astros staff. Paxton is much better than Miley, but could still benefit from a similar pitch profile – one where he uses his fastball slightly less and has an uptick in curveball usage.

Paxton is represented by Scott Boras, who is probably looking for a bigger deal in the Astros are comfortable with, but it would be worth kicking the tires on a smaller deal (with incentives) with the the former Yankee. Worst case – Paxton would be a solid middle of the lineup guy that gives Houston more pitching depth. Best case – Paxton improves upon his 2019 season with Brent Strom, and the Astros might have themselves another revitalized ace.