It happened again on Friday. For the umpteenth time, James Paxton got knocked around in the first inning. Boston plated three against the lefty; Mookie Betts hit a solo homer and JD Martinez delivered a two-run blast. Paxton didn’t pitch much better the rest of the way, but his first inning struggles have been a theme this season. He now has an 11.00 ERA in the first and 3.14 ERA in all other frames.
Aaron Boone acknowledged that the team has been working on his pregame routine, so the team has clearly taken notice. Hopefully, the work put in gets Paxton back on track sooner rather than later. Results aside, it’ll be easy to tell if any changes are working based on the underlying data.
Namely, Paxton’s first inning velocity has been a problem. I noted this back in the mailbag a couple weeks ago. As a refresher, take a look:
This is precisely what happened against the Red Sox over the weekend. In the first, Paxton was sitting around 95 and 96. Then, in the second and third innings, he experienced an uptick. He reached 98 in the second and topped out at 100 in the third. It’s as if he wasn’t completely warmed up by the time the game started. Still, this isn’t necessarily a new thing: his velocity built up over the course of the game with Seattle too.
Further, Paxton is fairly predictable in the first inning. To be fair, he’s always kind of predictable, as he’s always been fastball reliant. That being said, he leans on his heater quite a bit from the get go.
Paxton goes to his fastball (fourseam and sinker, I believe the latter is being misclassified on Brooks Baseball) 69.4 percent of the time in the first inning. He throws it 62.4 percent of the time in all other frames. Again though, this isn’t necessarily brand new. He mixed up his pitch selection later into games with the Mariners as well.
Still, more fastballs at a lower velocity doesn’t seem like a recipe for success from the start. To top it off, his fastball command isn’t helping. Here’s where he locates his fastballs in the first inning:
And here’s where they are the rest of the game:
He’s a bit more over the middle in in the first and closer to the edges later in the game. Now, Paxton has always been more of a control over command type of pitcher, as his best fastball can usually get away with being over the heart of the plate. However, as noted, he doesn’t have his best velocity in the first inning.
So far this season, Paxton has given up 17 homers and 12 have come against his four-seamer. In the first inning, he’s surrendered 10 dingers; eight of those on four-seamers. Based on the aforementioned data, it’s not surprising that so much damage has been done against his heater in the earliest stage of the game.
Now, lower velocity and poor command isn’t the only issue. Additionally, Bad luck has victimized Paxton:
Perhaps his misfortune softens the blow, but it doesn’t erase what’s already occurred. If anything, it lends to some optimism for the rest of the season. I mean, he can’t be this bad every first inning, right?
It’s worth noting that Paxton isn’t alone with his first inning struggles. More runs are scored in the first inning than any other because each team’s top three hitters get to hit every time. But, Paxton’s issue is obviously far more pronounced this year. With Seattle, Paxton’s first inning ERA was 4.01 as compared to his overall 3.42 ERA with the Mariners.
Further, Paxton isn’t the first Yankees pitcher under Larry Rothschild’s tutelage to have first inning woes. In 2016, Michael Pineda dealt with similar difficulties to start off his outings. Unfortunately, it didn’t ever get much better for him that season or in 2017. His first inning ERA actually got worse in 2017 as compared to the year before. All that said, Pineda’s inability to improve doesn’t necessarily mean Paxton is doomed. I just wanted to highlight a recent time a Yankee pitcher went through what Paxton is dealing with right now.
One more thing to consider is Paxton’s knee health. He’s already conceded that his knee isn’t 100 percent healthy, and that could be affecting him. In theory, it could take him longer to get loose before the game because of his knee. Maybe by the time the second and third innings roll around, his knee feels stronger and less stiff. That’s total speculation, though.
Paxton will get another shot against Boston this coming weekend. Hopefully, whatever work the Yankees’ coaching staff has done with the lefty starts to pay dividends by then. It would do wonders for Paxton’s confidence to have a clean first inning in his next outing. The team’s rotation needs some degree of positivity right now.