Tonight, James Paxton will get a chance to do what exactly what the Yankees acquired him to do: beat the Astros in the ALCS. His performances in the ALDS and against Houston during the regular season show that Paxton will have to walk a tightrope to get through this lineup, but the Astros are fallible. Armed with a strong fastball and a newfound confidence in his curveball, Big Maple could lead the Yankees to victory in Game Two of the ALCS.
Paxton faced the Astros twice during the regular season. In April, lack of fastball command hurt him badly, and the Astros tagged him for five earned runs on eight hits, including two homers. Things were better in June when Paxton gave up just one run while fanning seven hitters across five frames.
The Paxton the Astros faced earlier this year isn’t the same pitcher who took the mound against the Twins last week though. During the second half of the season, the left-hander switched up his pitch usage and started spinning a lot more curveballs. In his last 11 starts, Paxton had a 2.51 ERA and 69 strikeouts in 61 innings, holding hitters to a paltry .546 OPS. In large part, that Paxton showed up to face the Twins in the ALDS.
Big Maple threw 86 pitches against the Twins: 36 fastballs, 36 curveballs, and 14 cutters. The Twins struggled mightily against the curveball, as the pitch generated a swinging strike 19.4% of the time. The fastball, however, wasn’t quite as effective. The southpaw didn’t get any swinging strikes, and both Twins’ homers came from ill-spotted heaters. Still, Paxton was able to use it well enough to set up the curveball.
A similar approach against the Astros could work, but Paxton will have to be much more careful than he was with Twins. For one, the Astros aren’t likely to miss as many curveballs as Minnesota. Houston’s hitters had a .334 wOBA against curveballs during the regular season, which was well above the league average .281. The Twins were still better than league average, but their team .307 wOBA shows the Astros are much more likely to have quality contact against the breaker.
Spinning more curves against Houston might get Paxton into a bit more trouble, and fortunately, he leaning into his fastball a bit more might be the answer to this problem. Of course, it can’t just be any old fastball. The Astros’ team wOBA against fastballs was .389, six points higher than Minnesota’s and second-highest in the league. However, hight-heat fastballs really neutralized the Astros’ lineup.
Against fastballs 95 MPH or faster, the Astros are essentially league average. They have a wOBA of .326 against that type of pitch, which is just two points higher than average, and it’s likely where Paxton can find success against this team.
An average Paxton fastball in 2019 was 95.4 MPH, and in the ALDS it was 96.9 MPH. It’s extremely unlikely Paxton is going even get a chance to turn this Houston lineup over a third time, so if he can let the fastball fly for two trips through the order, the Yankees could hand the game to the bullpen in a very good place.
Of course, Paxton can’t just serve fastballs up all day long and expect Houston to swing through them all. A lack of command back in April killed Paxton against Houston even though he sat around 95 MPH all day, and the Twins made Paxton pay for two misplaced fastballs in his most previous start. Velocity works in his favor, but without command, it won’t mean much.
No one said getting through to the World Series would be easy, and Paxton definitely has his work cut out for him in Game Two. He’ll still have to lean on his curveball as an out pitch, but the Astros will likely do a better job of making contact against it than the Twins. The numbers tell us Paxton’s fastball velocity could be enough to overpower the Houston lineup but only if he can spot it. If he can locate the heat, the Yankees might be able to steal another game in Texas.