Potential can be a tricky thing. Most guys in the upper minors have a great deal of it, and certainly any top-50 prospect just drips potential. For most of those players, the full potential stays shackled for any number of reasons, but in today’s MLB, it’s often because of poor coaching and poorer analytics.
Earlier this week I wrote about the Yankees’ hiring of Matt Blake, which is something that’s fascinated me to such an extent I’m going to do it again in this post. This time though, I want to talk about potential. There’s a lot of hope that Blake can unlock some latent ability in the likes of Luis Cessa, Jonathan Loaisiga or Chance Adams, and turn them from mostly disappointing bubble pitchers into valuable MLB arms.
It’s fair to hope for those things, but I think the guy that stands to benefit the most from even deeper integration of analytics into the Yankees’ coaching is one James Paxton, a guy who has been the picture of unrealized potential for a few years now. Injuries have taken their toll on his overall performance, of course, but even when healthy he’s sometimes struggled to find consistency, that bane of all good-but-not-yet-great pitchers.
We saw how much the proper application of data could really help turn Paxton into a 1A type of pitcher down the stretch in 2019. He won his last ten decisions, but more than that, he posted two of his three lowest monthly ERA figures in August and September, his two lowest wOBA marks in those months, and two of his three highest K-BB% rates. Health played a role, as it seemed like Paxton’s balky knee was under control, but there was something else going on too.
Down the stretch, Paxton really became a two-pitch pitcher, working fastball-curveball, especially inside to right-handed hitters. In speaking to Lindsey Adler of The Athletic (subscription required), Paxton directly credited former pitching coach Larry Rothschild with the shift to more curves, a clear sign of the power of properly communicated ideas, and the data behind said ideas.
This is where I think Matt Blake will really earn his pay. I wasn’t a huge anti-Rothschild guy, but to paraphrase Bane, he merely adopted the data. Blake was born in it, molded by it. His success with the Cleveland minor league system turned Shane Bieber into a legitimate top of the rotation arm, and two other pitchers under his tutelage in the organization made starts for Cleveland this year. The organization has always been on top of pitching analytics, and the Yankees enveloping that intellectual capital is only a good thing.
The difference between potential and performance can be measured any number of ways. Injuries are certainly one way, but incorrect data or incorrect interpretation of data can be another. The Yankees are well-positioned to avoid that pitfall, and with their big lefty in a contract year, I’m expecting more of that potential to be realized than we’ve seen yet.