James Paxton’s New Approach

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If you’ve watched James Paxton closely over his last few starts, you’ve probably noticed that his pitch usage has changed in a fairly significant way: he is throwing fewer fastballs and more offspeed/breaking pitches. He’s been open about this change, telling The Athletic’s Lindsey Adler about his plans to incorporate more curveballs and fewer cutters during the remainder of the season.

This approach, I think, is supported by the under-the-hood metrics but one quote, in particular, caught my eye.

“Guys can kind of cover both of those pitches [fastball and cutter] with the same bat speed. They can kinda take my fastball and hit it away, or they can catch it a bit more out front with the cutter. Throwing a curveball that comes in at 80 to 83 just makes them respect a different pitch speed so they have the thought in the back of their mind that, ‘Oh, this might be slow,’ which can make them late on my fastball

James Paxton to lindsey adler

That’s an interesting quote, isn’t it? Paxton, and by extension the Yanks’ pitching staff, are clearly concerned with batters sitting tight on his fastball, which is his most important pitch. They seem to believe that changing speeds will help keep batters off-balance and help Paxton find more consistent success. As Adler noted, in his last few starts through the article, he had seemed to take that approach to heart.

But to me, when you hear a pitcher talk like that, it just screams “I am going to work on my changeup.” Sure enough, Paxton’s changeup usage has significantly increased over the last few starts. This is a really abnormal development for him, and I think it’s going to be a fascinating trend to watch throughout the rest of the season. Let’s quickly break this one down.

Pitch Usage

Paxton has thrown 100 innings or more in every season since 2016, and his pitch patterns are quite clear over that period. Check it out, removing 2019 for now:

Four-seamSinkerCutterCurveChange
201657.07%6.37%15.31%13.09%8.16%
201757.70%7.89%10.05%21.32%3.04%
201855.08%8.62%14.36%21.56%0.38%

Pretty clear trends right there, no? Paxton really leans on his fastball–even more so when you group the four-seam, sinker, and cutter together–and primarily used his curveball as his breaking pitch. His changeup, which he used 8% of the time in 2016, has rapidly declined in usage, as he barely used the pitch at all last year.

Nothing groundbreaking here. Now let’s look at this same chart, with 2019 included:

Four-seamSinkerCutterCurveChange
201657.07%6.37%15.31%13.09%8.16%
201757.70%7.89%10.05%21.32%3.04%
201855.08%8.62%14.36%21.56%0.38%
201954.73%7.21%21.79%15.24%1.02%

There are some significant differences in approach–notably the switch in usage between the curve and cutter–but it’s also clear that he’s using his change more this year. A lot more than 2018, proportionally.

However, it’s a bit misleading to look just at the blanket 2019 numbers because if you really get granular, you can pinpoint the altered approach. It’s almost all very recent. I split up his usage rate by pre-All-Star Game, post-All-Star Game, and in his 3 August starts. The results are fairly interesting. Check it out:

Four-seamSinkerCutterCurveChange
Pre-ASB58.76%6.41%20.84%13.55%0.44%
Post-ASB45.56%9.05%23.95%19.10%2.35%
August (3 Starts)43.17%8.57%19.05%24.76%4.44%

That, folks, is what we call a trend. He’s throwing fewer straight fastballs, more sinkers, significantly more curves, and he’s re-introduced his curveball. Essentially, this means that Paxton’s words are supported by his approach. In other words, Paxton really is attacking hitters differently.

Why Mix it Up?

This change in approach is notable enough to make me wonder why he’s suddenly re-introducing his changeup lately. Let’s start by taking a quick look at the difference in velocity between his pitches. As you’d imagine, this is fairly straightforward:

Yup. No real surprises there. His four-seamer and sinker are essentially the same speed, meaning that he was throwing about 95 mph 60% of the time, with his cutter about 7 mph slower, on average. The cutter is also a bit slower this year than in year’s past, too, which is notable given that Paxton openly wants more velocity separation and feels like the cutter isn’t cutting it.

The results on the pitch this year, though, have also been much worse than normal. Check out the numbers against the cutter:

  • 2016: .183 BAA (.199 wOBA)
  • 2017: .195 BAA (.210 wOBA)
  • 2018: .144 BAA (.181 wOBA)
  • 2019: .252 BAA (.296 wOBA)

Yikes! That is not what you want. I think those historic numbers suggest why the Yanks may have encouraged Paxton to throw more of them this year–it was a really good pitch!–but obviously, the results have not panned out. Who knows if that has anything to do with the decreased velocity or not, but I do think it’s interesting.

Anyway, I’d imagine that the ineffective cutter, coupled with an overall disappointing season, spurred the mix up in approach. What’s interesting is that he’s going to the change more, though, because check out the same figures for that pitch:

  • 2016: .391 BAA (.483 wOBA)
  • 2017: .286 BAA (.405 wOBA)
  • 2018: 1.000 BAA (.880 wOBA)
  • 2019: .000 BAA (.173 wOBA)

Now, don’t read too much into 2018, as he only threw 11 changeups last year, but yeesh, that has always been a bad pitch for him. It’s never been successful at the big league level. For what it’s worth, he’s thrown only 20 changeups this year, with 14 of those coming in his last 3 starts. That is a notable difference, and I think it’s interesting that this is a component of the new approach given that he’s never really had this pitch as a weapon in his career to date.

Change in Action

Let’s check out the new pitch in action, why don’t we? Here are two GIFs of the pitch generating swings-and-misses, even if both are against Baltimore:

He went down and away with the pitch both times, which is consistent with how he’s used the change in its limited time this year. Check it out:

Again, a pretty small sample here, but this is a fairly notable difference from how he’s used the pitch in his career. Here’s 2016 and 2017, for reference:

Is this enough to say “the Yankees told him to use the changeup down and away?” Obviously not. Again, the sample here is minuscule. But it’s hard not to notice the difference, isn’t it? It certainly seems deliberate. Whether it is or isn’t will require more careful attention, but I think it’s worth keeping an eye on.

That’s especially true because of the split difference: every single changeup Paxton has thrown in 2019 has come to a righty hitter. He hasn’t thrown a single one to a lefty. There could be a good reason for that, as it seems that righties are really pounding Paxton this year. Check out RHB lines against Paxton:

  • 2016: .275/.303/.407 (.710 OPS)
  • 2017: .229/.285/.345 (.630 OPS)
  • 2018: .202/.254/.364 (.617 OPS)
  • 2019: .254/.328/.508 (.836 OPS)

Again, noticeably worse this year. Perhaps–just perhaps–the changeup is the antidote the Yankees and Paxton have prescribed to solve this. Even introducing it as a legitimate option may keep righty batters off-balance, as Paxton alluded to Adler. I don’t know if it will work or if my guess is right. Only time will tell, really, given the small sample here.

Conclusions

Finally, it’s worth noting that Paxton has pitched to this line since deploying his new weapon: 2.89 ERA (4.83 FIP), 12 H, 6 R, 4 HR, 6 BB (8.2 %), and 20 K (27.4 %). Granted, two of those starts came against the Orioles, but the other came against the heavy-hitting Boston lineup. There are still too many home runs in there, obviously, but the early returns have been promising, at least.

The Yankees are going to need James Paxton to pitch like the James Paxton everyone expected when they acquired him if they want to make a deep run into October. It’s interesting to see the Yankee pitching staff and Paxton changing his approach. They’re talking about it and the data backs it up, even in some surprising ways. This is something to keep an eye on throughout the rest of 2019, I think.

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1 Comment

  1. RetroRob

    A good change up is probably the hardest pitch to hit. Considering how fastball heavy Paxton is, It’s a bit surprising he decreased the use of his change over the past few years instead of increasing it. One of the Rays’ success areas is their pitchers are all taught good changes. The keyword though is “good”. Maybe he went away from it because it wasn’t all that good. Hoping the Yankees can help him improve it because it could really elevate him to an elite pitcher.

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