With the American League East all but wrapped up–the Yankees have a 9-game lead with 17 games to play–for the first time since 2012–all sights now turn to the playoffs. As expected, one of the dominant questions the team will face as they prepare for the American League Division Series will be the way in which the Yankees line up their starting rotation.
On this site and across the fandom, fans and analysts have decried the Yankees for their failure to acquire a bonafide ace that will help them compete with the dominant rotation of a team like Houston. Those criticisms were often fair (I levied some of them myself) but also overlooked the fact that the Yankees did trade for James Paxton–a player who, if inconsistent, often showed flashes of brilliance with Seattle.
After some early struggles and an injury in pinstripes, Paxton made some tweaks to his approach and finally looks like the pitcher the Yankees thought they acquired back in November. In fact, he’s been so convincing since the trade deadline that there is no doubt: if the ALDS started this weekend, James Paxton would be the Yankees Game 1 starter. Let’s get into it.
After the trade deadline, I wrote that the Yankees’ 2019 success hinged on the arms of both James Paxton and Masahiro Tanaka. The Yankees bet that both (at the time) struggling pitchers would turn it around and deliver the performances expected of them. I think it’s fair to say that Paxton is living up to his end of the bargain. (Tanaka is, too, but this is a post about Paxton.) Check out his last 8 starts, dating back to August 2 and through last night:
- August 2 vs. Boston: 6 IP, 2 H, 2 R, 3 BB, 6 K
- August 7 at Baltimore: 6.2 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 7 K
- August 12 against Baltimore: 6 IP, 5 H, 3 R, 2 BB, 7 K
- August 17 against Cleveland: 5.0 IP, 6 H, 4 R, 3 BB, 4 K
- August 23 at Los Angeles: 6.2 IP, 5 H, 2 R, 0 BB, 11 K
- August 28 at Seattle: 5.0 IP, 1 H, 2 R, 5 BB, 4 K
- September 3 against Texas: 7 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 12 K
- September 9 against Boston: 6.2 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 3 BB, 7 K
It’s worth looking at the start-by-start data for a few reasons. First, you can really see how difficult Paxton has been to hit over that period: only once in his last 8 starts has he surrendered more hits than innings pitched and he’s struck out at least a batter an inning in 6 of those 8 starts, and often much more than that. Second, it becomes clear that he is on an upward trajectory and that he is capable of consistently dominating lineups. Say what you will about Boston, but that team can hit, and he cut through a vicious Dodgers team like butter.
Add all of this up and you get this line: 8-0, 2.57 ERA (3.28 FIP) in 49.0 IP with just 29 hits, 58 strikeouts (30.4%) and 18 walks (9.4%). It’s also worth noting that this is no longer a case of small sample size–well, it is, I guess, but it also amounts to nearly 40% of his overall innings pitched as a Yankee. That will get the job done, I’d say.
For what it’s worth, even though there have been some starts in which Paxton has surrendered too many walks, he is still roughly league average (8.5%) in the category–and that’s been the weakest area of his game recently.
When Paxton takes the mound recently, you can bet it will be a good performance. He has been consistent, steady, and effective for the Yankees recently. And, better yet, there is a reason why.
The New Look James Can Stay
Back in August, right before his start against Cleveland (his worst of the bunch, because of course it was), I wrote about how Paxton had made some fairly dramatic shifts to his pitch usage. I noticed he was mixing in a changeup more while also returning to a curveball heavy approach.
The difference is stark. Check it out:
He is using his curveball much, much more. That’s a return to the norm for Paxton historically, and it is a change that makes sense. Check out some key indicators against the pitch, with pre-August numbers on the left and post on the right:
- BAA: .196
- Slugging: .339
- ISO: .143
- Whiffs-Per-Swing: 35%
- Usage: 13.4%
- BAA: .143
- Slugging: .257
- ISO: .114
- Whiffs-Per-Swing: 47.83%
- Usage: 24.4%
Now, it’s worth noting that this pitch has always been good for Paxton, and it’s always been one he’s used extensively. Check out his usage graph since he became a regular in 2016:
And check out those same indicators in 2017, during his best year as a professional:
- BAA: .155
- Slugging: .250
- ISO: .095
- Whiffs-Per-Swing: 40.7%
- Usage: 21.3%
Seem familiar? When Paxton is at his best, he is peppering batters with curveballs–and they simply don’t stand a chance against the pitch. That’s what happened in 2017, it’s what’s happened throughout his career, and it’s what is happening right now. That is a good sign, and it is easy to see why. Check out the pitch locations this year:
He keeps the ball down in the zone, which makes it awfully difficult to hit (batters average only 81 mph on batted balls against the pitch and have hit just 3 home runs off it). When it’s working, it looks like this:
Nasty. That’s just nasty right there. Unhittable, really.
Now, I think it is curious, very curious in fact, that the Yankees presumably had Paxton shift away from this pitch early on. (If they didn’t, why else would we have seen such a dramatic shift?) It seems a bit too cute to me, and it’s also a bit curious that the pitch they turned to instead, the cutter, made Paxton even more fastball-reliant. That seems to contradict the Yankees anti-fastball philosophy. But it is very encouraging to see him, presumably with the coaching staff, make this simple adjustment and find success.
Remember his last 8 starts I highlighted above? They perfectly correspond to the
old look new look James Paxton. Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but I really don’t think so.
So, what does this all mean? Well, I think it’s pretty clear at this point that the current version of James Paxton we’re seeing is simply not the same pitcher we saw in the first-half. Not only has he been extremely effective, but it’s not just noise: there are real reasons underneath the success. There are signs the success is sustainable.
He is increasingly looking like an ace. The Yankees’ lefty is a flamethrower who misses plenty of bats, and the results are catching up with him. He has consistently limited the damage, provided length, and looked more comfortable on the mound since returning to his old usage rates. He has even carved up playoff-worthy lineups.
The Yankees will have a lot of decisions to make with their postseason roster in the coming days and weeks, but James Paxton is making one decision much easier: he should be the pitcher on the mound as the Yankees begin their quest to bring the World Series trophy back where it belongs.