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.
Got a few questions to answer as we head into the final weekend of the regular season. Before we dive in, remember to send your questions to viewsfrom314 [at] gmail [dot] com for a chance to be included in a future mailbag. Now, to this week’s questions:
A few people asked: What does the Yankees’ 2021 rotation look like?
People sure love to talk about next year’s team when this season isn’t over, huh? Nonetheless, I’ll oblige.
As you likely know, the Yankees can lose Masahiro Tanaka, James Paxton, and JA Happ in free agency this offseason. That leaves a number of holes to fill, though the team does have enough big league caliber starters to fill out a staff. It just may not be as good as this year (or before this year). The players under contract for 2021: Gerrit Cole, Luis Severino, Jordan Montgomery, Domingo Germán, Deivi García, Clarke Schmidt, and Michael King.
Of course, there are caveats with the seven pitchers I just rattled off. Severino is recovering from Tommy John surgery and will start the 2021 season on the injured list. Germán will have just finished his suspension under the league’s domestic violence policy, so who knows how much rust he will have to shake off. Montgomery was a roller coaster this season. King was terrible. Schmidt will have just one big league start to his name entering 2021. At least Cole and Deivi looked great.
Now, if all goes well, that group could look pretty good by 2021’s end! Cole and Severino could make for a formidable one-two punch. García and Schmidt have a ton of upside. Germán and Montgomery are more than capable back-end guys, with the former having shown flashes of better than that in 2019.
That said, count on the Yankees reinforcing the rotation this year. For one, I’d bet on Tanaka’s return, but I expect Paxton and Happ to depart. Don’t expect any free agent splurges like Trevor Bauer to replace those guys, though. A trade or middle-market free agent (Kevin Gausman? Marcus Stroman? Mike Minor?) signing seems more likely. Here’s what I envision as the Yankees’ ideal rotation come Opening Day 2021:
By season’s end, you can slot in Sevy. Forget about who that boots from the staff as that sorta thing always seems to sort itself out. Injuries and unexpected performances happen.
Paul asks:Should Luke Voit’s contract be extended?
Everyone at this here blog loves Voit, but this answer is a pretty easy no. Voit turns 30 in February and won’t be a free agent until after the 2024 season. It stinks for the first baseman, but he was a late bloomer who won’t hit the open market until his mid-thirties. That leaves the Yankees very little motivation to extend him beyond 2024 at the moment.
Voit’s now a lifetime 138 wRC+ hitter in over 1,000 big league plate appearances and should still get paid fairly well in arbitration. He’s going to be super-two eligible this offseason and should get a nice raise over the near league-minimum pay he’s gotten over the last couple of seasons. More traditional stats like home runs and RBIs pay in arbitration, and Luke’s got those aplenty.
Aside from age and team control considerations, I think Voit’s position and health are detractors from any extension. I just don’t see much of a reason to lock up a 1B/DH type when the team already has a number of those guys on the roster already. Additionally, though Voit has played through “foot stuff” this season, I can’t help but worry about his health over the long run. Last year’s oblique injury really held him back too.
Dan asks: I recall speculation before the season started that players who were on teams that were clearly eliminated would be compelled to opt-out, to avoid playing in meaningless games. Obviously, that hasn’t happened. Are you surprised at all?
I’m a little surprised, but I think that there are two big reasons we haven’t seen a bunch of opt-outs.
First, The expanded playoffs have definitely played a big part here. 21 of the league’s 30 teams are still alive with just three games remaining. Had the league stuck to 10 playoff teams for this season, perhaps we’d see a lot more guys bowing out early.
Additionally, perhaps players have become more confident in the league’s health protocols as the season’s gone on. The amount of positive tests and team-wide outbreaks has slowed down the stretch. Earlier this season, it was a lot easier to imagine players dropping out as playoff hopes dwindled because of the numerous positive tests and postponements.
All that said, one high profile player has opted out this week: Andrelton Simmons. The Angels (26-31) are technically still alive too, though it’ll take a lot going right for them to overcome the Astros (29-28) for second place in the AL West.
Jeremy asks: Gio Urshela is the man. I’m hoping you can help me understand something about his advanced stats (and advanced stats in general). His Exit Velo (86th percentile), xBA (98th), and xSLG (86th) are elite. Why are those stats so high when his Hard Hit% (56th) and Barrel% (48th) are fairly average? His K% (90th) is pretty elite but I feel like that only explains part of the xBA and not much of anything else. Is it more so because his GB%/FB%/LD% mix (38.3%/19.2%/38.3%) is seemingly much better than the MLB average (45.3%/21.9%/25.7%)?
It’s definitely strange that Gio’s hard hit percentage and barrel percentage aren’t up to snuff with his average exit velocity. I do think that Jeremy is on the right track with the batted ball type mix, but there’s one other thing I’d like to add.
Gio’s distribution of batted ball quality is excellent. He may not have a ton of hard hits or barrels, but he almost never makes weak contact. He also doesn’t get on top of the ball too often either. Further, the “under” or “flare/burner” category isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Many of those are bloopers that dunk in. Better than a weak hit or chopper that’s almost an automatic out.
We should also keep in mind what this means for Gio’s hard hit and barrel percentages. Remember, a hard hit ball is 95 MPH or greater exit velocity in any direction. Grounders, pop-ups, or line drives can all get the same treatment under hard hit percentage. So just because Urshela isn’t great there doesn’t mean his exit velocity and xStats are inflated. Rather, it appears that Urshela’s distribution of hit quality helps him in the exit velocity department, while his launch angle helps him rarely hit into easy outs.
As Jeremy noted, Gio hits grounders well below league average and hits liners well above league average. Consider that with his hit quality distribution and elite bat-to-ball skills and you can see why Urshela’s had so much success.
No day is complete without some Yankees’ injury news. Not since last year, at least. The Yankees placed three more players on the injured list this afternoon: James Paxton (grade 1 flexor strain), Gleyber Torres (grade 1 quad and hamstring strains), and Luis Avilán (shoulder inflammation).
Nobody’s prognosis is available yet, but I wouldn’t count on seeing Paxton or Gleyber soon. Between a shut down, resuming throwing, and building back up, it could be a few weeks until Paxton’s back assuming he’s pain free. As for Torres, it could be somewhat tricky given he strained two different muscles. We’ll see. It’s been a rough few days for the Yankees, so I’ll concede some pessimism might be shining through.
There aren’t any corresponding roster moves yet since this weekend’s series against the Mets has been postponed. The Yankees next game is Tuesday in Atlanta (though a doubleheader against the Mets on Monday has been floated) and we should find out about the replacements by then. I’d guess we see a couple of more arms and another middle infielder, perhaps the recently added Jordy Mercer.
In other news, Aaron Boone provided updates on a few players who are working to turn:
The team expects Aaron Judge to return once the Yankees play next, whether that’s Monday or Tuesday (Kristie Ackert)
DJ LeMahieu took dry swings and played catch for the first time today (Ackert)
The team will have workouts tomorrow and Sunday to stay fresh (Brendan Kuty)
Zack Britton played catch and ran on the field today. Boone anticipates a short injured list stint (Kuty)
The Yankees beat up on Boston in tonight’s 11-3 win. This one came against the Red Sox one reputable starting pitcher, Nathan Eovaldi. As good as it was to watch Gio Urshela, Gary Sánchez, and Clint Frazier sock dingers, this victory was bittersweet. DJ LeMahieu departed early with a thumb injury. More on that and everything else from this game below.
Paxton’s still not himself, but was good enough tonight. I don’t really like the “one bad inning” baseball trope because every inning counts. And yet, I can’t help but think that tonight was a tale of two different James Paxtons. He was bad in the third inning but decent otherwise.
1, 2, 4, 5
Paxton just couldn’t put anyone away in that third frame. It all started with a leadoff walk against the nine-hitter, José Peraza. That’s always a no-no (even moreso since the Yankees had a 2-0 lead at the time). A Rafael Devers double and JD Martinez two-run single later and this one was leveled at two-all. Xander Bogaerts came up next and quickly fell behind 0-2, but Paxton again couldn’t finish the job. On the seventh pitch of the matchup, Boston’s shortstop went yard to give the Red Sox a 3-2 lead.
Tauchman was oh so close to bringing that one back, by the way. Seemed like he lost it in the sky momentarily, which cost him a chance to get better positioned for his leap.
Other than a first inning threat that Paxton worked out of, Boston didn’t string much together against the lefty. Now, I wouldn’t say that The Big Maple was mowing down Boston hitters. He only struck out two batters in this game, but was pretty efficient and had solid command. He only walked one batter, and aside from that third inning, didn’t leave too many pitches over the heart of the plate.
Command will remain key for Paxton as long as he’s searching for his velocity. In terms of pitch speed, tonight was the lefty’s best performance of the season. He averaged 92.8 MPH on his fastball, still a far cry from the old Paxton, but 0.4 MPH higher than his previous top mark this season. Additionally, Paxton threw his hardest pitch of the season (94.8) tonight when he struck out Michael Chavis in the second. Take a look:
In all, he looked better in his last start vs. the Rays. This certainly wasn’t a bad start by any stretch, though. That said, he’s still not the same guy we saw down the stretch last summer. He’s got two-thirds of the regular season to rediscover that form.
Red Sox Pitching is just what the doctor ordered for Gary Sánchez. Make it three straight games with home runs for the Yankees’ backstop, who’s look better in the box. Gary took Nathan Eovaldi deep in the top of the fourth, a two-run shot that gave the Yankees a 4-3 lead. It came against a 2-2 splitter that sat right in the middle of the zone.
Gary got a little bit of a break on the pitch before the dinger. He check swung against a curveball at the bottom of the zone — that blue dot n the plot above — but he didn’t go around. Pitch probably should have been called strike three and Eovaldi looked disappointed. Even more disappointed on the next pitch:
Sánchez still has a long way to go to bring his numbers back to respectability, but that’s neither here nor there. Can’t be worried about the full-season numbers in a 60 game season, anyway. Let’s just hope this is the beginning of a hot streak.
Clint continues to shine. Clint Frazier had a nice game on both sides of the field today. Offense is usually the name of the game for Clint, but Frazier actually made a pretty nice play in right field in the first inning.
This catch helped preserve a 0-0 score. Look, maybe other right fielders make that play look a bit easier, but it’s nice to see Clint appear more comfortable in the field. His defense has been an adventure in the past, particularly last year. Perhaps he finally feels more confident out there now that his concussion woes get further and further away from him.
Of course, it’s the bat that keeps us coming back to Frazier. Tonight, he reached base in all four plate appearances, including a double and a home run. His three-run blast blew this one open, by the way. With the Yankees up 4-3 and Eovaldi still on the mound in the sixth, Frazier went oppo taco:
Frazier drove in two more runs in the eighth when he singled against Matt Barnes. He’s making the most of this chance, to say the least.
The injury bug strikes again. All of the curse words. Ugh. DJ LeMahieu exited tonight’s affair after spraining his thumb on a swing. We’ve grown accustomed to an array of soft tissue and muscle injuries since last year, but this is different. Injuries in the hand/thumb/wrist area are not good for hitters. LeMahieu still needs further testing before we know the prognosis, but all we can hope for at this point is that it’s nothing more than a sprain.
This means we could see a lot of Tyler Wade and Thairo Estrada if LeMahieu is out for an extended period. Or, if the Yankees want to get creative, they could shift Gio Urshela over to second and bring Miguel Andújar back up to play third. Urshela played a little bit of second base with Cleveland in 2017.
Another nice game for Gleyber Torres. He had two hits in four at-bats follow yesterday’s four hit game. He’s been swinging the bat well for about a week now. Since August 8th (against Tampa Bay), Torres is 10-for-22 with six walks. The power isn’t back just yet (he has two doubles in this stretch), but this is good no less.
I was going to give Gio Urshela his own section after his two-run homer gave the Yankees a 2-0 lead early in this one, but then again, what more is left to say about him? He’s just so, so good. Entering this season, I was concerned that 2019 was a fluke for Gio. But that just isn’t the case. Not only is he getting results, but his Statcast numbers are top-tier once again. Entering tonight, he was in the 96th percentile for xwOBA, 87th percentile for exit velocity, and 86th percent for hard hit percentage. He’s just terrific.
Brett Gardner crashed into the center field walk attempting to make a running catch in the ninth inning. It appears he’s alright as he remained in the game, but if there’s anything more we’ll keep you posted.
These two sides square off again tomorrow night in the third of this four game set. It’s a national broadcast once again (ESPN). JA Happ starts for the Yanks and Chris Mazza goes for Boston. See you all then.
It wasn’t always pretty, but thanks to Aaron Judge and the rest of the offense, the Yankees completed a three game sweep against the Red Sox tonight at the Stadium. The victory moves the Yankees to a league best 7-1 and drops Boston to 3-7.
James Paxton still wasn’t quite right, though it was nothing as bad or as jarring as his first start in DC. The glovework behind him hurt Paxton quite a bit as well, but much of that was forgotten thanks to Judge’s heroics. Let’s break this one down.
I’m at a loss for words for how good Aaron Judge is. He’s absolutely on fire right now and delivered two monstrous and clutch homers tonight. Oh, and he’s now homered in five straight games.
Judge launched his first dinger of the night with two outs in the second inning off Boston lefty Matt Hall. Look at this beauty:
Things weren’t so hot before that dinger. The Yanks were down 2-0, James Paxton’s stuff clearly wasn’t there (more on that in a moment), and the defense looked lackluster. Instead, Judge turned things around with one swing of the bat to make it 3-2.
He now has a homer in five straight games, something a Yankee hasn’t done since A-Rod did so in 2007. The MLB record is eight games in a row, held by three players including one Yankee: Don Mattingly, Ken Griffey Jr., and Dale Long.
We’ll get to Judge’s second majestic blast in a second, but let’s build up to it first…
Down, but never out
The Yankees overcame four deficits in this one: 2-0, 5-3, 6-5, and 7-6. We already discussed how Judge erased Boston’s early 2-0 lead above, but let’s get into the other mini-comebacks.
The Red Sox took a 5-3 lead in the top half of the third inning, but the Yankees didn’t let that survive the bottom half of the frame. Giancarlo Stanton led off the frame with a walk, but Hall retired Aaron Hicks and Luke Voit to settle down. Or, so he thought. Gary Sánchez and Gio Urshela delivered back-to-back doubles to tie this one up at 5. Let me re-emphasize that these two runs came with two outs. Do I sense a theme here? Judge’s three-run dinger earlier came with two outs as well.
Boston retook the lead a couple of innings later, but the Yankees had a little more two out magic in them. Enter Luke Voit:
Of course, the Red Sox took one more lead just so the Yankees could prove a point about two out hitting. Up 7-6 in the eighth, manager Ron Roenicke handed the ball to Matt Barnes, one of the few relievers in Boston’s bullpen that any of us have heard of. Things looked somewhat cushy for the Sox as Barnes put away Gary Sánchez and Gio Urshela to start the frame.
But as we well know, things are never safe against this Yankees’ lineup. Mike Tauchman drew a walk and stole second base with DJ LeMahieu at the dish. As if DJLM wasn’t going to deliver in the clutch:
7-7. Then, once more, Judge did the thing:
468 feet! What a blast. He’s on another planet right now. That made it 9-7 and the Bombers never looked back.
A defensive letdown behind Paxton
We got the fun stuff out of the way. Now, let’s turn to James Paxton’s start. His second outing of the year certainly wasn’t what we had hoped for, but the defense behind him made matters worse. In three innings, the lefty gave up five runs (three earned) and seven hits.
It was obvious that Paxton didn’t have his velocity again right out of the gate, but that didn’t stop him from retiring the first two batters he faced. In fact, he probably should have had a 1-2-3 first inning in spite of his 91 to 92 MPH average fastball velocity. With two outs, Aaron Hicks took a poor route on a JD Martinez fly ball which resulted in a double. The next batter, Xander Bogaerts, made the Yanks pay. He drilled a middle-middle fastball into the right field seats:
Paxton recovered for a scoreless second, but ran into trouble again in the third. Although, the trouble once again wasn’t all his own doing. Kevin Pillar hit a ground rule double that had no business landing uncaught. Again, Hicks had trouble. He pulled up on his route in right-center field looked up as if he was awaiting the ball to go over the fence. Instead, it dropped on the track and then ricocheted over the wall. Rafael Devers then singled Pillar in to even the score at three.
Defense was a problem again a couple batters later: Miguel Andújar booted a routine Bogaerts line drive single in left field which brought Devers around to score to make it 4-3 Boston. Bogaerts made it to third as a result of the error. Then, inexplicably, the Yankees played the infield in with one out in the third against Boston’s awful pitching. In turn, Christian Vázquez ripped a single past the drawn in infield to make it 5-3. Might have been a hit with the infield back anyway, but it wasn’t a good process. Finally, Paxton wiggled his way out of the rest of the frame with no more damage, but that was it for the night.
Unfortunately, Paxton didn’t alleviate concerns about his stuff tonight. His fastball is his go to pitch, historically sitting in the mid-to-upper 90s. Tonight, the lefty averaged 91.5 miles per hour on his fastball. That average fastball velocity was actually worse than his first start of the season (92.4 MPH). He was also short on max velocity (92.9) compared to his outing against the Nationals (93.8).
Two quick caveats on fastball velocity here. One, maybe Paxton took a little bit off tonight in order to locate better. His mechanics have been all out of whack, after all. Two, there could be some Hawkeye calibration issues here. The rollout of the new tracking system has reportedly shown some inconsistencies across ballparks that are still being ironed out. In any case, what we’re seeing from Paxton’s fastball still isn’t good.
To no surprise, Paxton without his big heater isn’t going to result in a ton of whiffs. He garnered just eight swings-and-misses on 62 pitches. Red Sox hitters also fouled off 15 of his offerings.
Now, for the silver lining. Paxton’s location seemed quite a bit better this evening. He didn’t walk anyone and was much more around the plate compared to his last outing.
Here’s what it looked like against Washington:
Hopefully that’s an indication of some mechanical adjustments made in between starts. If so, tonight is (sort of) a step in the right direction. Paxton still needs to find his blazing fastball to be anything remotely like he was toward the end of last year, of course. We’ll see how things go next time around.
Michael King relieved Paxton and pitched relatively well. His two-seamer was really working and helped him earn four strikeouts in 3 2/3 innings. However, he did give up two solo shots to Bogaerts and Rafael Devers.
Adam Ottavino was shaky, but held the Red Sox scoreless in 1 1/3 innings of work between the seventh and eight innings. He earned his first win of the year.
Zack Britton notched his third save in a 1-2-3 ninth inning.
Yankees’ pitching had no answer for Bogaerts and Devers tonight. The duo on the left side of Boston’s infield went a ridiculous 6-for-9 and drove in 5 of the Red Sox’ 7 runs tonight. Bogaerts hit two homers and Devers pitched in one longball.
Whew, I’m spent. Another ridiculously long Sunday night Yanks-Sox game on ESPN, but at least it was a fun one.
The Yanks are back in action tomorrow against the Phillies. It’s the start of four games made up from last week after MLB rearranged the schedule following the Marlins’ COVID-19 outbreak.