Ross Atkins has stated that the Toronto Blue Jays will consider looking outside the organization to add pitching during this off-season. Tanaka and Paxton are free-agent starters worthy of consideration.
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When the current off-season began, FanGraphs listed Masahiro Tanaka (#2) and James Paxton (#4) on their top eighteen free-agent starting pitchers. Each player has a track record that suggests that they could be an ideal #2 starter for Toronto. Still, there are risks associated with each pitcher. Who is a better candidate for Toronto?
Starter performance levels
For argument’s sake, assume that a #1 starter’s fWAR lies within the 81st to 100th percentile of starter fWARs. A #2 starter’s fWAR resides in the 61st to 80th percentile, and so on. Also, one can breakdown other critical metrics into percentile bands for starters. Accordingly, Table 1 presents percentile breakpoints for fWAR, ERA, and FIP. The data reflects the average for the 2015 to 2019 seasons.
The highlights are as follows:
- The fWAR, ERA, and FIP breakpoints for a #1 starter are 2.9, 3.49, and 3.69, respectively
- For a #2 starter, the fWAR, ERA, and FIP breakpoints are 2.0, 4.03, and 4.11, respectively
- The fWAR, ERA, and FIP breakpoints for a #3 starter are 1.2, 4.52, and 4.55, respectively
- For a #4 starter, the fWAR, ERA, and FIP breakpoints are 0.4, 5.21, and 5.13, respectively
Let’s assume that the Jays would like to add a #2 starter this off-season. Accordingly, this article will examine Tanaka’s and Paxton’s suitability as #2 starters for the 2021 Jays. The data that follows also includes Taijuan Walker, who FanGraphs rated #6 on their list of top free-agent starters. However, the data, specifically FIP and the expected metrics, illustrate that Walker is probably a #3/#4 starter. I will provide no other Walker analysis as a candidate for the #2 position.
Table 2 summarizes Tanaka’s and Paxton’s percentile rankings for three time periods: 2020, 2019 to 2020, and 2017 to 2020. The data presented include K%, ERA, FIP, fWAR, and others. Table 3 details some Statcast numbers (for example, xBA and xSLG) for 2019 to 2020 and 2017 to 2020 periods.
The Tanaka Case
Tanaka joined the Yankees in 2014 at the age of 25, and, in seven seasons, he posted a 3.74 ERA and an 18.9 fWAR. Tanaka’s seven-year, USD 155 million contract expired with the conclusion of the 2020 campaign; he did not receive a Qualifying Offer from the Yanks. Concerning injuries, Tanaka has been relatively healthy; he missed 41 days in 2015 with arm problems, 11 days in 2017 with a shoulder ailment, 32 days with a hamstring injury in 2018, and 10 days in 2020 due to a concussion. Tanaka averaged 172 innings during the 2017-2019 period. 2021 will be Tanaka’s age-32 season.
The highlights from Table 2 are as follows:
- Tanaka was a relative workhorse with his 87th percentile ranking in innings pitched
- Mark Shapiro recently said that the Jays want to target strike-throwers, and he is one, as evidenced by the 90th percentile Strike%
- A note of caution is his middling ERA and FIP grades; median and 57th, respectively
- Tanaka ranks in the bottom twenty percent in HR/9, which is a cause for concern. However, he did pitch in home-run central (Yankee Stadium), which is more homer-friendly than Rogers Centre
- Other than innings, BB%, Strike%, and fWAR, Tanaka was a median-ish starter in terms of HR/9, ERA, and FIP
- Tanaka’s ERA was 68th percentile, but his FIP ranking was 40th
The highlights from Table 3 are as follows:
- The expected stats, which remove the impact of defence and luck from batted balls, paint the picture of a below-median pitcher
- Tanaka’s SLG% and xSLG% rank near or in the bottom-third of starters
- Batters hit his pitches hard, which is supported by his Barrel% that typically ranks in the bottom-third of starters
- Tanaka’s relative ranking in the various metrics during 2019-2020 are consistent with those of the 2017-2020 period
Therefore, Tanaka’s expected stats point to a #3 starter, not a #2. He is a strike-thrower and has been relatively durable. However, batters hit his pitches hard, and he has produced below-median xBA and xSLG metrics.
For a detailed explanation of the factors considered in the contract computation, please refer to Appendix A. It is important to note that a reasonable contract value falls within a range of other valid contract values. There is no precise number for a contract estimate; it is not like going to the grocery store to buy broccoli.
Table 4 shows that a reasonable contract for Tanaka is a two-year, USD 31.5 million deal. This contract value is in-line with FanGraphs estimate of two-years, USD 30.0 million.
The Tanaka Decision
Tanaka has been a good pitcher in terms of ERA and fWAR. However, his expected stats and FIP indicate that he will be more of a #3 starter than a #2. Tanaka’s 2021 ZiPS projections also place him in the #3 slot, not #2 (see Table 1).
The Paxton Case
Canada’s own Paxton made his debut with the Mariners in 2013. The Big Maple has a career 3.58 ERA and has generated a 17.4 fWAR. Paxton was traded to the Yankees in late 2018 and performed well in 2019: ERA – 3.82; FIP – 3.86; and fWAR – 3.5. However, he only pitched 20 innings in 2020 due to hip and elbow injuries and produced a 6.64 ERA. Time on the Injured List is not a new experience for Paxton; he has missed almost 300 days since his MLB career began. Furthermore, Paxton underwent back surgery after the 2019 season. 2021 will be Paxton’s age-32 campaign; he did not receive a Qualifying Offer from New York.
There is a potential wrinkle in a Jays-Paxton contract discussion. The Jays originally drafted Paxton in the first round of the 2009 June Amateur Draft. However, Toronto was unable to sign Paxton, a pitcher on the University of Kentucky’s baseball team. After, Paul Beeston made public comments about the difficulty of negotiating with Paxton’s agent, Scott Boras. For more story details, please refer to the Globe & Mail article. Privately, Paxton may or may not have harsh feelings towards the Blue Jays.
The highlights from Table 2 are as follows:
- Paxton’s K% percentile ranking was 95th, his BB% was 65th, and his K%-BB% was very good (94th)
- His ERA and FIP marks landed him in the 78th and 92nd slots, respectively
- In fewer innings than Tanaka, Paxton bettered Tanaka in the fWAR department (89th versus 81st)
- Paxton’s K%-BB% graded out in the 87th percentile
- The Big Maple’s fWAR was in the 80th percentile
- His HR/9 declined on a relative and absolute basis, likely due in part to the move from Seattle to New York
- Paxton’s poor 2020 stands in contrast to his very good 2019
The highlights from Table 3 are as follows:
- Paxton’s xBA, xSLG%, and xwOBA were no lower than the 86th percentile
- His BA, SLG%, and wOBA were 79th, 74th, and 81st, respectively
- The Big Maple’s xBA, xSLG%, and xwOBA were no lower than the 79th percentile
- His BA, SLG%, and wOBA slipped on a relative basis to 64th, 51st, and 53rd, respectively
Paxton has been one of the better pitchers when healthy. His ERA, FIP, and fWAR for the 2017-2020 period support the view that he is a #1/#2 starter. However, he has a lengthy history of injuries, and he entered the 2020 season after successfully recovering from back surgery. His 2020 campaign was cut short by injuries, which, together with the back-surgery recovery, contributed to a 3.4 mph decline in fastball velocity. Another red flag is that his Barrel% has declined on a relative basis; 2017 – 96th; 2018 – 6th; 2019 – 41st; and 2020 – 13th.
Table 5 shows that a reasonable deal for Paxton is a two-year, USD 35.7 million deal. This contract estimate does not consider Paxton’s specific injury-risk. A one-year deal works out to be USD 19.6 million, which is higher than FanGraphs estimate of one-year USD 15.0 million. According to reports, Paxton prefers a one-year deal, which would allow him to rebuild his market value and secure a more lucrative contract after the 2021 season.
There is a balancing act to a Paxton contract negotiation. The USD 19.6 million figure does not account for his particular injury-risk. Accordingly, a risk-adjusted value would likely fall between USD 10 and 15 million. Perhaps Paxton would accept a performance-laden, one-year, USD 15 million deal with two club options (USD 15.0 million each) and minimal buyout costs. The potential for a three-year contract would provide some financial security for Paxton. A three-year deal would also present the Jays with the opportunity to secure an excellent starter over a period that aligns with the remaining term of the Hyun Jin Ryu contract.
The Paxton Decision
Paxton has the profile of an excellent #2 starter. His pre-2020 FIP, fWAR and expected metrics support that opinion. Paxton’s 2021 ZiPS projections also place him in the #2 slot (see Table 1). However, Paxton’s health is an issue that could significantly impact his future production. The Blue Jays could address that injury risk by constructing a contract that contains various milestones (for example, the number of innings pitched). Suppose Paxton is only willing to sign a one-year deal. If so, the Jays should consider other options (Yu Darvish) before circling back to Paxton.
The last word
Tanaka and Paxton have been good pitchers in the past. Paxton profiles as a #2 starter going forward, and Tanaka projects as a #3. The Blue Jays have stated that they would like to add starting pitching, and Paxton fits the bill. However, specific injury-risk is associated with Paxton. Hence, a performance-based contract with club options would benefit Toronto. Paxton and his agent, Scott Boras, may have a different objective.
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Bob was a St. Louis Cardinals fan until the Blue Jays arrived on the baseball scene, although he still has a soft spot for the Cards. Similar to straddling the Greenwich Meridian, as depicted in the avatar, Bob applies sabermetrics when applicable, but his heart tells him that Lou Brock belongs in the Hall of Fame.