While it feels like the Yankees have yet to make a desired big splash in free agency, it’s often forgotten that they grabbed a top flight starter at the very beginning of the offseason in James Paxton. The left-hander is arguably better than any free agent starter that was, or still is, available. He resents the ceiling of a bonafide ace when healthy.
For Paxton to reach that ceiling, he will have to find success against his most frequent opponents, which will be teams within the division. So, how does Paxton square up against the rest of the AL East? It’s worth taking a closer look.
I’ll be extremely careful when discussing the O’s and the likely dreadful season that awaits them, given how the Yanks inexplicably struggled at times against them last season. In a small sample size (39 at-bats), the Orioles have a 1.070 OPS against Paxton, including a 5-for-10 clip from Danny Valencia, because, of course.
Again, the sample size is small, and Paxton should be fine against Baltimore this season. One of the only concerns for Paxton, other than past injuries, is his susceptibility to hard contact. That was the third highest in baseball last year among pitchers with at least 250 innings. The Orioles were the second worst team in baseball last year in terms of hard contact, and figure to be without Adam Jones in center field. He’ll be replaced by Cedric Mullins, a young switch hitter who actually was far worse from the right side of the plate than the left last year. Mullins had a wRC+ of 39 against left-handers, compared to 104 against right-handed pitching.
That 39 wRC+ is better than what Chris Davis did against southpaws last year. Former Rookie of the Year candidate Trey Mancini, despite being a right-handed hitter, finished last year with a 77 wRC+ against left-handers, compared to 99 against righties. In short, ignore the small sample size against the O’s. Paxton should be fine.
Of course, Boston will be the toughest test for Paxton. He’s a hard-throwing lefty that relies on strikeouts and working within the zone, having finished with a strikeout rate above 30 percent last season with a walk rate below seven percent. Meanwhile, the Red Sox finished among the best in baseball in BB/K ratio, and were in the top 10 in the league in that category against lefties.
The obvious catalysts for those numbers are hard-hitting righties like Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez. Boston can also have its struggles against southpaws, though, as the defending champs finished 19th in wRC+ against lefties in 2018. That’s likely due to lefty hitters like Andrew Benintendi, Mitch Moreland, Rafael Devers and Jackie Bradley Jr., who were all well below league average against left-handers last year. That should help Paxton, as will Boston’s hard contact rate against them, which ranked 26th in baseball last year.
The Rays finished 2018 with the sixth-highest groundball rate in the league, and given Paxton’s hard contact numbers referenced above, that could at times spell trouble for the Yanks, who will have to do their homework and shift properly to disguise their shaky infield defense. Hard ground balls against infielders with limited range (like Troy Tulowitzki, Miguel Andujar and Luke Voit) make for a lot of base hits. Given that the Rays were fifth in the league against left-handers last year with a 105 wRC+, Paxton will have to be careful.
Kevin Kiermaier had just a 50 wRC+ against lefties last season, which was better than lefty Ji-Man Choi (46), but Tommy Pham (143) and Avisail Garcia (119) will be the tough ones for Paxton to navigate, especially at home, where the short porch lingers.
While Paxton would like to limit grounders against the Rays, he’ll likely want to keep the ball out of the air when facing the team that represents his home country. Toronto finished eighth in baseball in HR/FB percentage last year against lefties, and it wasn’t a small sample size, considering they also finished third in the league in fly ball percentage. So when the Blue Jays put the ball in play, it’s often through the air.
Toronto will look to switch hitters Justin Smoak and Kendrys Morales for offense in 2019, but both finished below league average against left-handers last year based on wRC+, including Morales’ lowly mark of 57. If Paxton can use his elite velocity up in the zone and keep Toronto’s hitters from squaring up that fastball and putting it in the air, he should be fine. Again, it’s a small sample size, but the Blue Jays have just a .543 OPS against Paxton in 75 at-bats. Of course, this helped keep those numbers down: