Last year, James Paxton was the Yankees best pitcher down the stretch. This season, the team couldn’t count on him at all. From injuries to depleted stuff, the lefty simply couldn’t get himself going in 2020. The timing couldn’t have been worse for both him (as an impending free agent) and the Yankees (whose pitching depth thinned out really quickly).
There was palpable excitement about Paxton’s 2020 before we learned he needed back surgery in February. He was excellent in the second half of 2019 and delivered a solid postseason. In particular, his six innings of one run ball against the Astros in Game 5 of the ALCS. But little did we know that Paxton was troubled with back pain dating back to last postseason.
Paxton needed treatment to make those postseason starts, but the hope was rest would have him at full strength for 2020. Instead, discomfort flared up during Paxton’s offseason workouts, and a wait and see approach simply didn’t work. He went under the knife and was expected to return sometime in May or June.
Of course, Paxton didn’t actually miss any time due to surgery because of COVID-19 postponing the start of the regular season. That doesn’t mean it didn’t loom large later, however. As I’ll get to in a moment, Paxton was never himself during his five regular season starts. Sure, he put together one very good start in Tampa Bay, but it wasn’t with his vintage stuff.
Paxton was never able to iron out his mechanics upon his return either. That quite possibly led to a flexor strain in his left arm. As a result, his season effectively ended on August 20th. There was some hope that he’d return at some point down the stretch, perhaps as a reliever in the postseason, but that obviously never came to fruition.
After sitting just a hair under 96 MPH and capable of hitting triple digits on the past couple of years, Paxton had no oomph on his heater in 2020. This problem was apparent right from the very first start of the season for the lefty. He averaged just 92.4 MPH on his fastball against the Nationals in the team’s second game of the year. As the season went on, he never came close to approaching his prior year velocity levels. He also exhibited a significant arm slot drop.
Not good. It’s not a surprise that his arm eventually acted up.
In his brief season, Big Maple averaged 92.1 MPH with the offering. Without the blazing fastball, Paxton was largely ineffective. He finished with a 6.64 ERA in 5 starts (20 1/3 innings).
Paxton is a control over command pitcher, so fastball velocity has always been integral to his success. He could get away with fastballs down the middle and up for the same reason Gerrit Cole does: a mid-to-upper 90s fastball is much harder to square up than a low 90s one. As a result of a weaker fastball, Paxton more or less looked like the version of JA Happ we saw last year.
Lost velocity also neutralized Paxton’s cutter, which dipped to 85 MPH from 88 a year ago. He still had a ridiculous 41.4 percent whiff rate against his cutter, but when batters made contact, it went flying (.692 slugging percentage).
In an attempt to adjust, Paxton altered his pitch mix. He threw fewer cutters and curveballs in favor of mixing in more changeups. The lefty threw 45 changeups (12.6 percent) after throwing just 32 all of 2020 (1.2 percent). It actually was quite effective for him as opponents had a 68.4 percent swing-and-miss rate against it and no hits. Take a look at a few good ones:
Still, those adjustments weren’t enough to make up for that slower fastball. Batters teed off against his heater with a .313 batting average and .625 slugging percentage.
Again, it’s hard for a pitcher like Paxton to thrive without velocity. The only hope for him to be effective was to improve his command, but that’s much easier said than done especially on the fly.
The trade in hindsight
The Yankees certainly didn’t get what they hoped out of Paxton when they acquired him two years ago. There were flashes of brilliance, particularly toward the end of 2019, but I think it was fair to say that the front office hoped for more. In total, Paxton made 34 regular season starts for the Yankees and had a 4.16 ERA and 3.92 FIP in 171 innings. Once again, the Yankees struck out on a pitching acquisition via trade. Paxton fared better than the likes of Sonny Gray, Nate Eovaldi, and Michael Pineda to name a few, but I wouldn’t call him a success.
Justus Sheffield, the centerpiece of the deal going to Seattle for Paxton, had a nice season for the Mariners in 2020. The lefty posted a 3.58 ERA and 3.17 FIP in 55 1/3 frames. Nice work by the 24 year-old. Swanson has been pretty bad in the majors for the M’s and Thompson-Williams lost a year due to no minor league season.
I don’t think the Yankees will have major regrets about trading away Sheffield, regardless of how good of a pitcher he turns out to be. The timing for Sheffield’s readiness and the Yankees’ window didn’t align. The only thing you can wonder is: could the Yankees have gotten something better or safer in return for Sheffield and the others? Paxton had a bit of an injury history before joining the Yanks, as you know. Sky high upside of course, but as we saw in New York, he just couldn’t stay on the field.
Free agency couldn’t have come at a worse time for the southpaw. Diminished velocity and a pitching arm injury? Forget it. He’s going to have to settle for a one-year deal to prove himself in 2021. Had he been healthy this summer and pitched the way he did down the stretch in 2019, Paxton could’ve been looking at a nine figure deal.
Paxton is eligible for a qualifying offer, but he won’t receive one from the Yankees. I also don’t think he’ll be back in pinstripes next season, either. The team could really use some stability in the rotation and Paxton simply cannot offer that. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Paxton rebound next season, but it likely won’t be in the Bronx.