MLBPro100 #5: Paul Erickson Finally Getting His Flowers

Jack Dawkins will tell you.

Again. And again.

And again and again.

“Paul Erickson has been the best pitcher on the planet for a long time,” said the Rays GM. “He should have three or four Cy Young awards already.

“The Angels misused him for so long,” he continued, with a laugh. “I was on them for the longest time. I was telling them, if you won’t start him, send him to me.”

I do remember this. Dawkins, then-Phillies-and-now-Rays-GM, wasn’t the first one to recognize the talent of Paul Erickson, who celebrated his 31st birthday yesterday. The talent was there for all to see at an early age. It was clear his senior year at Texas, where he posted a 10-2, 2.26, 1.03  for a national championship team. The talent was evident, and caused the Angels to draft him 15th overall, eleven picks before Dawkins had a chance to draft him for Philly.

“We were really hoping he would fall,” said Dawkins. “We didn’t know how he would, but stranger things have happened.”

The talent became less evident as he began his professional career; he struggled in rookie ball, going 5-8 with an ERA over 6. But the Angels remained committed.

However, that comes with a caveat. They did not trade Erickson; instead, they moved him to the bullpen in 2016, and kept him there through the 2020 season. 


“The organization valued the bullpen the most,” said New York Mets manager Rod Barajas, who was Angels manager from 2016-22. “A bullpen that at the time included (Aroldis) Chapman, (Jordan) Walden, and Matt Nevarez. This was after having Heath Bell in the mix the year prior. We loved having tons of options. 

“That was paired with a rotation that at the time had (Ryan) Copeland, (Brandon) Morrow, and CJ Wilson leading the way and productive pieces in Chris Archer and Julio Tehran. We didn’t see Erickson starting meangingful games with Copeland and Morrow leading the way in ‘16 or ‘17, then we signed (Jordan) Lyles in 1’8.

“The bullpen was where saw he could get valuable innings, and often more than 3 outs. So he stayed there for the next few years as the rotation remained a strength. 2020 was probably the first year he was considered to be a starter, but he stuck as a closer after being dominant the year before.”

“It didn’t bother me,” said Erickson, when asked about being in the bullpen. “Look, everyone has an ego. I have an ego. But let’s be honest. Would a defending world champion (the Angels won the title in ‘16) make space in the rotation for a rookie? That doesn’t really happen, you know?

“So, I made my ego about being the best reliever in the league.”

In 2017-18, he laid claim to best setup man in the league. In 2019-20, he may have been the best closer in baseball.

In 2019, it was likely that he was the best pitcher in the league, regardless of role. He went 7-3, 1.24 (0.83), giving up 40 hits in 65.1 innings, striking out 96, against just 14 walks. He had a 13.2 K/9 rate, a 324 ERA+, and 3.3 WAR.

Again, that 3.3 WAR came in sixty-five innings.

If anything, that made the voices demanding he be a starter get louder.

“Oh, it was frustrating to me,” said Dawkins. “I tried everything to get him. Could you imagine a Phillies rotation with Paul Erickson and The LOOGY (Sean Gilmartin) at the top of it? I knew he wasn’t being wasted, sure. But there was an old-school, he should be pitching the most innings kind of mentality attached to it.

“It was an embarrassment of riches,” said Barajas. “I don’t think there’s anyone there that would argue against that.”

So, what changed? Erickson struggled a bit in 2021, going 2-5, with just four saves, and a 2.75 ERA in 36 innings. His WHIP went up to 1.31. But, he also started four games.

Then came the injury, a partially torn UCL on April 22. That wiped out the rest of his 2021. When he began his rehab, there was one message from the top:

Prepare for the rotation.

“It was a changing of the guard in the rotation,” said Barajas. The rotation, at that point, was fronted by Brady Singer, Steven Matz, and Kyle Funkhouser. It was a solid rotation, but it was not a championship one. 

“We also had enough pieces in the pen–(Takaaki) Ichikawa, (Armando) Romero, (William) Main along with others.

“To remain dominant in the back end, we needed his arm in the rotation. Simple as that.”

So, Erickson finally got his chance. The end result: 

17-6, 2.97 (1.00); 163.2 IP, 123 H, 182 K; 143 ERA+, 4.5 WAR (2nd Place, Cy Young)

Not only had he come back from significant injury to perform a role he had yet to perform, he did so on a team with championship aspirations. He performed at a Cy Young level. And the Angels won the World Series.

He was even better this past season, going 19-4 with a ridiculous 1.73 ERA (233 ERA+). How ridiculous is it?

  • The American League ERA was 4.04.
  • The MLBPro ERA was 4.09.
  • The next-best ERA in the league was Danny Hultzen, at 2.47.
  • The next-best ERA in the AL was Juan Davila, at 2.81.

He had an ERA 1.08 LOWER THAN THE NEXT-BEST ERA. His WAR, 7.3, was 2.1 above the next-highest (Seattle’s Justin Hooper, at 5.2). That 233 ERA+ was 69 (nice) above Hultzen, and 88 above Davila. His rWAR (8.6) was one above Hultzen, and 2.6 above Houston’s Bill Black.

He wasn’t just the league’s best pitcher. He was standard deviations ahead of the next-best pitcher.

It came at a most necessary time for the Angels, too. The rotation is, again, in flux. Funkhouser blew out his elbow in May; he likely won’t return until after the season starts. There was only one other pitcher on staff who won at least 10 games, that being Brady Singer…and that was a rough twelve wins. There were 25 uneven starts out of Alex Hultzen. Seven pitchers started at least ten games. Someone named Tyler Lowry started 24.

Paul Erickson was the constant. He continues to be THE constant for the Angels. And the stars seem to be aligned for him to be the constant for years to come.

At the very least, Jack Dawkins has given up on his overtures. Mostly.

“First thing I did in Tampa was check in on Paul,” said Dawkins with a laugh. “I mean, that was probably my best chance, before 2022.

“Old habits die hard, you know?”

Some Vote Notes: The Keepers of The Vote projected Erickson here; he finished second in the vote at #4, two votes behind Arizona SS Jeremy Scott.

  • Erickson received one vote at #1.
  • Four players who received a vote at #1 remain.
  • One player received their first vote at #5.
  • One player, who received a vote at #2, still has not received a vote since.
  • Nine players received votes at #5.
  • Four players received multiple votes.

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