A time-tested baseball mantra is that one should never overreact to one game. That is doubly true for the first appearance of a season, tempting though it may be. Still, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t at least a little bit concerned about James Paxton after Saturday’s truly disastrous start.
To be fair, most of that concern stems from Paxton’s recent injury. It’s not just a one start thing. He is still working his way back from back surgery that repaired a herniated disc in February. It is also worth noting that Paxton did not have a full Spring Training 1.0 due to this surgery, so comparing him to every other pitcher right now is not apples to oranges. He may just not be ready! For what it’s worth, the Yankees say that Paxton is “physically fine”, which is good.
Anyway, with that context in mind, let’s take a look at some of the issues that plagued Paxton in more detail.
A Lower Arm Slot
As he worked his way back from that surgery, Paxton noticed that his arm slot was a bit off. He said his slot felt “slightly low” and it was something that he was working on fixing during Summer Camp.
Evidently, he has not yet worked out the kinks. Here is his first pitch of the 2020 season, a 91-mph four-seamer to Trea Turner:
It can be hard to tell, but it’s different than in 2019. Check out this 95-mph fastball to Xander Boegarts from September:
His arm angle in 2020 is definitely lower than it was last year. Zooming in on the point of release really drives that home. Here are the two photos side-by-side followed by a marked up version:
It’s a subtle change, to be sure, but it’s one that becomes very visible on the marked-up version. Look at how much lower the release point is on the left: the crude line I drew is much, much straighter. Lest you think my methods here are less-than-scientific, there are two additional pieces of supporting evidence.
The first is this overlay, courtesy of Lucas Apostoleris:
Pretty dramatic when you look at it like that. The second piece of evidence, should you still need convincing, is that the scientific Pitch Info data supports it. His arm slot was much lower on Saturday. Last year, the vast majority of his pitches came out of his arm at a position of 6 feet or higher. Not a single one of his pitches last night, by contrast, cleared that threshold.
It’s a steep decline. Check it out:
Yikes! That really matters. It’s actually off by half an inch or so across the board. Interestingly, Paxton turned a corner in Seattle a few years ago – and gained velocity, as we’ll get to in a minute – by lowering his arm slot. (This is mostly unrelated, as it was five years ago and the plot is completely different. I just think it’s interesting.)
We know this shift is not intentional since Paxton has spoken about the fact he’s not happy with the new arm angle. He even said after the game last night that he was having mechanical difficulty – he said he couldn’t get “full extension” – and this could be a manifestation of that. It makes sense. Back surgery is no joke and it was always unreasonable to expect Paxton to be fully operational right away, I think, even if we all wanted it to be so.
The drop in arm slot correlates with a drop in velocity, too. I am not sure if the changed slot is causing lower velocity, if it’s just a general arm/core strength issue, or something else entirely. All I know is that it’s happening at the same time as a dramatic drop in velocity for the Yankee lefty.
The first pitch of the season last night was a 91-mph fastball from Paxton. A few weeks ago, he told Bryan Hoch that “the next step for me is finding the velocity. I’m not really a guy that gets that velocity in bullpens or anything like that, so that’ll be more of a game-time thing when the adrenaline starts pumping. It’ll be good to see some mid-to-high-90s numbers come in there. That’ll really show me that I’m 100 percent back.”
That made this officially a thing to watch, and what we saw was not pretty. It was obvious watching him – and obvious in that video above – that his fastball had just no life on it at all. Here is a chart that will help put into context just how far off his velocity was from the norm:
That is a slope that you just do not want to see on a pitcher in his prime, recovering from injury or not. Unsurprisingly, it’s also a key factor in Paxton’s success. As Mike Axisa noted at CBS, velocity on Paxton’s fastball directly correlates to a higher swing-and-miss rate and a lower batting average and slugging against, just like we’d expect. Velocity is very important to him.
I’m sure that Paxton can be successful if he’s not sitting at 99, to be clear, and, as Randy pointed out on Saturday, he had absolutely zero command of anything. That makes a slower fastball even more hittable. Still, we’ll want to see his velocity jump back up in future starts. That will help him look like this again:
“I think [my velocity] will come in time,’’ Paxton said after the game last night. “It’s definitely something I want to address and look at going forward.’’
The good news is that it’s been 1 (one) start, he’s still working his way back, and they’ve identified the issue. Crucially, he also says he’s healthy and pain-free. That’s the most important thing here. As I said before, he didn’t have a Spring Training and it may take him a minute to get back up to speed.
Still the combination of an obvious mechanical issue and reduced velocity is not a great one. It’s important not to overreact, but we should keep this in mind as the season progresses. The Yankees obviously want and need Paxton to right the ship. Let’s hope this is just a blip in the radar and we all can forget about it soon.