I’ll be honest when I say that I didn’t know much about James Paxton when the Yankees traded for him. I knew he had a high strikeout rate and that he threw a no-hitter last year and that Jeff Sullivan–formerly of Effectively Wild and FanGraphs–was a big fan of his. The trade for him made sense at the time and still does. But recently–and selfishly–despite his 11 strikeout job against the Rays, I found myself asking, “What am I missing with this guy?”
On paper, everything about Paxton screams that I should like him. He’s tall. He’s lefty. He throws hard. He gets a lot of strikeouts. He had a hilarious-if-briefly-terrifying encounter with a bald eagle.
I suppose the answer is that he just hasn’t pitched up to all that potential yet with the Yankees, as Steven detailed here in his midseason grades post. So, again, selfishly, I went searching for what’s going on here and why things aren’t clicking.
As I do most often in these situations, I went over to BrooksBaseball to try to check out what had changed for Paxton between 2018 and 2019. Here are his general results for 2018 and 2019. Focusing solely on his three most popular pitch types–fourseam, curve, cutter–it’s hard to find much of a difference between the two seasons. Even when we take a look at his more granular results for 2018 and 2019, there still isn’t too much of a difference to explain things. Sure, he’s getting slightly more line drives hit against his fastball, but that’s countered by fewer line drives against the other two pitch types.
Next, I sauntered over to Baseball Savant and actually found something we might be able to pinpoint. First, there is a general downward trend in pitches Paxton is throwing in the zone compared to last year.
In and of itself, a lower in zone percentage isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Pitchers are trying to get hitters to chase, after all. Let’s take a look at his success rate in getting batters to chase and miss:
Generally speaking, a downward trend again. He’s getting more out of zone chases with the fastball, but not with his cutter and his curveball. That’s an issue because, per BaseballSavant, those latter two pitches are the ones he uses as his out pitch most often. If batters aren’t chasing your out pitches when you throw them where you want them, that’s a win for them and a loss for you.
Despite all my questions and all my searching, it seems that Paxton is mostly the same guy he was last year, with minor differences that can probably be corrected, assuming health (which may not be a wise assumption with Paxton). Regardless, he’s got the talent and stuff to front a rotation and if he finds a groove, he and Masahiro Tanaka are a formidable 1-2 in any series, even without Luis Severino joining them. I’m still hopeful for the Big Maple.