The New York Yankees had one big goal this offseason: to improve the starting rotation. While re-signing J.A. Happ and CC Sabathia were solid moves, they didn’t move the needle or actually improve the rotation that ended the 2018 campaign. The Yankees still had a Sonny Gray-sized hole in the rotation behind Luis Severino and Masahiro Tanaka.
Enter James Paxton. The Yankees acquired the 30-year-old lefty shortly before Thanksgiving for a package of minor leaguers, although GM Brian Cashman indicated that the Yankees could continue adding to the rotation. “Big Maple”, however, has remained the only pitching addition to the roster as Cashman and the Yankees passed on the biggest free agent arm, Patrick Corbin.
Corbin signed with the Washington Nationals two weeks later for significantly more money than the Yankees (or any other team, for that matter) offered. The question on all Yankees fans’ minds though, is if Paxton can be just as impactful an addition as Corbin would’ve been.
The two pitchers are remarkably similar in some aspects. Paxton is 30, while Corbin is 29. Both are lefties over 6’3” that idolized Andy Pettitte as kids. Both have struggled with arm injuries over their careers. Their resumes are both impressive: Corbin has made two All-Star teams, while Paxton has thrown a no-hitter.
Looking strictly at last season, Corbin has the edge. He stayed healthy, hurling 40 more innings over five more starts than Paxton, who suffered minor back and forearm injuries. Corbin’s ERA and FIP were over half a run better than Paxton’s, his walk and home run rates were superior, and his WAR was 2.5 wins higher than Paxton’s.
That’s not to say that Paxton’s 2018 was bad at all. In fact, his strikeout rate was better than Corbin’s, and it was Paxton’s second-best season by most metrics. He even tossed a no-hitter in April over the Toronto Blue Jays. Paxton’s 2018 season was also his most durable, even though he did miss some time with minor injuries.
Compared to their MLB contemporaries, Corbin’s 2018 was better than Paxton’s. He finished 5th in WAR to Paxton’s 20th, and was second to only Jacob deGrom in FIP in the National League. That said, Corbin may be a little less reliable moving forward than Paxton.
If we extend the sample size to the last four seasons, Paxton’s advantage over Corbin is clear. Paxton’s strikeout, walk and home run rates, win-loss record, ERA, FIP and WAR are all better than Corbin’s over that span. While the Yankees didn’t acquire Paxton for past performance, he’s been more consistent than Corbin, when healthy.
Corbin went through a spell where he was demoted to the bullpen in 2016, and the Diamondbacks intentionally avoided using him in the 2017 playoffs. Basically, come the 2017 playoffs, he was Sonny Gray for the D-Backs. While Corbin has bounced back in the most impressive of ways, he may not be a true ace like his contract suggests he is.
When you tally up their WAR from 2015-2018, Paxton ranks 24th in the big leagues, while Corbin sits at 29. Ironically, Paxton is one spot lower than J.A. Happ and one spot above Masahiro Tanaka, while Corbin is below all three. First, this suggests that Happ and Tanaka are better pitchers than Yankees fans give them credit for — a topic for another day. It also indicates that Paxton and Corbin are remarkably similar in performance. Through their highs and lows, they rank very close to each other in the most popular formulaic way to evaluate players.
The Yankees have Paxton for the next two years as an arbitration-eligible arm, and he’s projected to earn $9 million next year, or close to what the Yankees will be paying Gray. Meanwhile, Corbin will be averaging $23.3 million over the next six years, which ends in his age-35 season. From a business standpoint, the decision to choose Paxton is an easy one. Saving money shouldn’t be the only thing the Yankees are concerned with, but if the difference between Paxton and Corbin is truly negligible, then it makes sense to save a few bucks in the process.
Paxton and Corbin are not aces, but they are solid number two or three starters. They are the kind of guys that every team needs more of to really strengthen a rotation. Realistically, the Yankees weren’t going to acquire them both, and there are arguments that can be made for either one. Based on track record and price though, Paxton was the right man at the right time for the Yankees.