The Two Halves of James Paxton [2019 Season Review]

2019’s Yankee ace? Close enough. (MLB Gifs)

The Yankees acquired James Paxton last offseason to pair him with Luis Severino atop their rotation. Despite dealing with a knee injury and a midseason swoon, Paxton found a groove in pinstripes and ultimately became their Game 1 starter at the beginning of the postseason. The lefty, however, took a meandering road to get there.

Sterling start and injury

The Yankees traded their top pitching prospect (Justus Sheffield) to get two years of Paxton, figuring that he could be what they thought Sonny Gray would have been.

The left-hander struggled in his first few starts, falling to 1-2 and carrying a 6.00 ERA into a matchup with Chris Sale on April 16. He reportedly tipped his pitches in a lackluster outing against the Astros, but his only OK games against the Orioles were discouraging.

Big Maple decidedly to put that all behind him in his second home start. He bamboozled the defending champions, giving up just three baserunners and striking out 12 over eight innings. The Sox had one semi-rally against him and nothing else. Just pure dominance.

He followed that up with another 12-strikeout, one-walk start against the Royals and came into May with a 3.38 ERA and plenty of momentum. However, the oft-injured pitcher succumbed to a knee injury against the Twins and was lifted following the third inning. That kept him out for 26 days and changed the course of his season for a while.

First-inning Issues

Paxton came back in a win against the Padres on May 29, but the good times did not keep rolling. Over 11 starts following his IL stints, he went just 52 innings, allowed 14 homers and had a 5.88 ERA. Opponents battered him to the tune of a .315/.378/.583 line. He had just two homerless starts, though one was in a solid five-inning start (and victory) over the Astros.

The Canadian left-hander said later in the year that his knee was still bothering him some, but he was healthy enough to take the ball every fifth day. There were signs of his old self in there — an 11-strikeout, zero-walk outing against the Rays on July 7 is a good example.

But Paxton had an issue simmering under the surface: The first inning. Over the course of the season, batters hit 12 of their 23 homers off Paxton in the first inning, scoring 29 runs in 29 starts. He gave up a 1.015 OPS, turning every team’s top of the lineup into a collective Alex Bregman. Even his best starts often featured one or two runs off the bat.

It all came to a head in his final start before the trade deadline. A day after the Yankees gave up 19 runs to Boston, Paxton allowed two first-inning jacks at Fenway and seven runs total over four uninspired frames. Both Paxton and the Yankees’ rotation seemed under siege, and they got no help at the deadline. Something had to give.

Dominant Turnaround

After that Boston start, Paxton was floundering. There were the normal questions of “Can he handle New York?” Still, it was more than that. He had shown plenty of strikeout potential — fanned 33 over his last four July starts — but he wasn’t the same starter that had impressed in Seattle in 2018, nor the one who’d dominated in April.

That changed in August. Though Paxton gave up a two-run homer to J.D. Martinez in the first inning on Aug. 2, he didn’t allow another run the rest of the way in six frames. In his final 11 starts of the year, Paxton allowed two runs or fewer in all but two starts, and no more than four in any of the games.

His turnaround started behind his curveball. After reversing his usage of cutter and curve early in the season, he flip-flopped again, prioritizing his curve as his primary offering outside of the four-seamer.

Paxton saved his best for a marquee matchup. In Los Angeles on Aug. 23, he allowed just two runs over 6 2/3 innings while striking out 11 and walking none. In the process, he overpowered the Dodgers’ impressive offense and established himself as an undeniable force.

After holding Seattle to one hit in his next start (though five walks), Paxton tossed back-to-back scoreless outings against the Rangers and Red Sox. He closed the season with an abbreviated start in which he strained his glute, but it was no worry for the postseason.

From August onward, he pitched to a 2.51 ERA and held opponents to a .177/.248/.298 line. The left-hander went 10-0 in those 11 starts and the Yankees walked away victorious in all of them.

Paxton’s 150 2/3 innings in the regular season were his second most at the MLB level. Add in 13 postseason innings, and he surpassed his career-high of 160 1/3 innings set in 2018. His 3.82 ERA was the best in the rotation, as were his 3.86 FIP and 186 strikeouts.

Postseason

After his flourish to end the regular season, Paxton was a no-brainer choice to start ALDS Game 1 against Minnesota. The southpaw flirted with disaster in his postseason debut but ultimately finished with the score tied after giving New York 14 outs. It wasn’t anything special, but it was more than enough in a 10-4 win.

Game 2 of the ALCS was a different story. Whether he was tipping pitches or not, Paxton didn’t have it and lasted just 2 1/3 innings against the Astros. Though he prevented more than one run from scoring, his abbreviated outing set back the Yankees’ bullpen for the rest of the series.

If Paxton had let down the Yankees in Game 2, he redeemed himself in Game 5. Facing elimination and Justin Verlander, Paxton gave up one run after some defensive futility in the first inning, then held Houston scoreless through six innings to get the Yankees a win in his final start of the season. Though the Bombers’ season came to an end the next night, the Game 5 victory was the proper exclamation point on Big Maple’s season.

What’s Next

Paxton is under contract for one more season. MLB Trade Rumors has him projected to make $12.9 million in his final turn through arbitration.

The Yankees could pursue an extension with the southpaw, who turns 31 in November. He’d get more than Sonny Gray’s four-year, $37 million extension from last winter, but something along the lines of four years $60 million? That wouldn’t add much to his luxury tax number.

Though it was a bumpy first year, Paxton showed he could handle the spotlight and deliver. You have to factor in the obligatory IL stint, but he slots in well as a No. 2 or 3 starter in the Bronx in 2020, extension or no.

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1 Comment

  1. Maybe prisoner of the moment? But, I’d sign up Paxton for 4/60 in a heartbeat, which makes me think it’s too light.

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