James Paxton Looks Sharp in His Return

Out of every AL East team, the Boston Red Sox arguably find themselves in the most tenuous position. This is thanks to a starting pitching staff that ranks bottom three in ERA and second worst in home-run-to-fly-ball rate (a putrid 17.9 percent). There is little doubt the Sox will be active buyers for a starter at the deadline (maybe an E-Rod return?!), but for now, Boston will have to traverse through the fire with a fragile cadre of question marks in their rotation. One of the largest of those question marks heading into the season was James Paxton, who made his return to the Boston rotation Friday night. The veteran lefty has walked one of the more laborious roads in recent memory.

Having gone through Tommy John surgery and a Grade 2 lat strain, the Sox decided to decline his two-year $26 million club option before the start of this season. Paxton, therefore, had little free agency leverage and ultimately acquiesced to a one-year player option worth $4 million. The lefty completed an injury trifecta no one wants after suffering a left hamstring strain to start the 2023 season. He spent his road to recovery at Triple-A Worcester posting a 6.23 ERA in six starts. Any path like this will make many fans want to give up already. It’s understandable to have reservations about Paxton’s worth to the Red Sox, even under such a team-friendly contract.

James Paxton’s Return was Friday’s Lone Bright Spot

Despite his tough road back, Paxton was the shining star amidst an otherwise disappointing 8-6 loss to the lowly St. Louis Cardinals on Friday night. In his first start since April 2021, the lefty finished with nine strikeouts in just five innings, while only giving up one walk and two runs. In surprising fashion, it was the so-far-sturdy bullpen that ruined Paxton’s magical return. Kenley Jansen, who boasted the best ERA for a closer before the game, ended the night surrendering three runs while not recording an out. The Sox lost a 6-5 lead in the ninth after coming back down 5-4. Who would’ve thought?

Still, Paxton looked sharp. He struck out the side in the fourth inning and then finished his performance with impressive back-to-back strikeouts of Tommy Edman and Paul Goldschmidt in the fifth. He didn’t give up a run in his last four innings after surrendering a two-run homer to Nolan Arenado in the first.

Can Paxton Keep It Up?

By many accounts, it was a stellar performance, especially when one considers how tempered the expectations were. But can Paxton emulate this for the rest of the year? Sox fans sure hope so after the rotation’s rough start to the season. Thankfully, he showed inklings of All-Star potential before the two-year hiatus. If Paxton makes a consistent return, he will hopefully mitigate the home run problem we’ve witnessed this year.

From 2015 to 2019, mostly with the Seattle Mariners, Paxton was tied with Justin Verlander for the 12th-best home-run-to-fly-ball rate out of 66 pitchers who pitched at least 600 innings during that span. He certainly showed some poise pitching in a division where Mike Trout was in his prime and the Houston Astros were in the midst of their first dynasty. From 2013 to 2019, Paxton ranked in the top third in the American League in ERA among those who pitched at least 700 innings.

Even more impressive, amongst that same group and during that same exact time span, the lefty ranked 11th out of 91 pitchers in strikeouts-per-nine-innings, finishing ahead of Verlander, David Price, and Aaron Nola. If he emulates that stretch, he’ll fit right in with the Sox, who, despite the underwhelming start, rank seventh in that same category this year. Long-term statistics aside, one of the more encouraging aspects of his first start back was Paxton’s fastball, which still clocked out around 97 MPH, even faster than some of his previous years before the injury. If he continues that, the Sox may finally have a power arm they can rely on.

The Lowdown

Paxton might not be a workhorse like the Verlanders and Max Scherzers of the world, but his lower volume of innings may bode well during a long season. Pitchers are typically stronger after Tommy John, and based on his velocity Friday, Paxton showed no signs of slowing down. The margins for error are incredibly slim in the crowded AL East. Four out of the five teams occupy a playoff spot, and the New York Yankees are only a half-game back of the third wild card.

A slight slip-up or series debacle, even this early in the season, can sink a ship before the skipper can make adjustments. There’s no cruising in April and May when four games separate second and last place and each crew is cooking like an episode of The Bear. The pitching staff thus far has been suspect for Boston, which may cost them in such a strenuous division. But if James Paxton makes a solid return, and the Sox make a move for a starter at the deadline, we might see some stability when the dog days arrive.

 

Photo Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

Players Mentioned: Eduardo Rodriguez, James Paxton, Kenley Jansen, Tommy Edman, Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado, Justin Verlander, Mike Trout, David Price, Aaron Nola, Max Scherzer