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James Paxton doesn’t need much to get back on track for the Yankees

James Paxton’s 2019 hasn’t gone well so far, but he’s not far off his prime form.

New York Yankees v Houston Astros Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

James Paxton was the Yankees’ biggest pitching acquisition of the offseason. So far, it’s hard to say he’s played like it. While his first start for the Yankees went well, his next two starts - a 5.1-inning, four-earned-run effort against the Orioles on April 4th, and a four-inning, five-run clunker against the Astros on April 10th - were short of satisfactory. It’s just three starts, but Paxton’s season ERA now sits at a round 6.00. Coupled with the Yankees’ frustratingly slow start as a team, it’s been pretty unpleasant to watch.

Paxton’s problem over his last two bad outings has been pretty simple - he’s left too many fastballs over the heart of the plate. Here’s a heatmap showing his heater location from his April 4th start.

James Paxton fastball location, April 4, pitcher’s view

Look at all that red in the heart of the strike zone. Even an anonymous lineup like the Orioles’ is going to take advantage of that. Now consider his fastball location from his April 10th start.

James Paxton fastball location, April 10, pitcher’s view

Paxton threw fewer middle-middle fastballs, which is good, but still was prone to catching too much of the plate, particularly when trying to work the inside corner to right-handed batters. That’s something a pitcher never wants to do, especially when facing the Astros’ fearsome collection of right-handed sluggers. As expected, the Houston cadre teed off on Paxton’s fastball to the tune of a .500 batting average and a 1.200 slugging percentage that day. Sometimes you can predict baseball, John.

So we’ve established that Paxton’s last two starts have gone awry due to his fastball command. As it turns out, that particular facet of pitching has never been Paxton’s forte. Here’s his fastball heatmap from his entire career:

James Paxton fastball heatmap, 2013-2019, pitcher’s view

By and large, Paxton’s fastballs have tended to find the heart of the zone. Despite this, he’s enjoyed success with the pitch in the past; according to FanGraphs, Paxton’s heater has generated 41.2 runs above average over his MLB career. This is in no doubt due to the sheer speed of the pitch; its average velocity of 95.4 MPH was 11th-highest in MLB in 2018, and behind only Blake Snell among left-handed starters. Combined with the downward plane Paxton is able to generate with his 6-foot 4-inch frame, that is one nasty fastball.

Of course, even good fastballs can get clobbered by MLB hitters if they’re grooved too often, which happened in Paxton’s last two starts. But Paxton’s entire body of work to date suggests that he doesn’t need to locate his fastball on the black every darn time in order to find success. If his career heatmap is any indication, just two or three fewer middle-middle fastballs per start should do wonders for Paxton’s results.

Equally encouraging is that the rest of Paxton’s repertoire has looked fine even in his mediocre start to 2019. His main secondaries, his biting cutter and lollipop curveball, have generated swing-and-miss statistics in line with his career norms.

James Paxton, whiff rates per swing for cutters and curveballs, 2013-2019

All Paxton really needs to do is do refine his fastball command just a bit. I guess that’s advice you could give to every pitcher in the world. However, Paxton is not like most pitchers in the world, in that he throws 96 from the left side like it’s nothing, and has a quality cutter and curveball to round out his arsenal. So, the good news is that Paxton doesn’t need to improve his fastball location drastically overnight to save his season. Just a teeny tiny bit more precision and fewer glaring mistakes and the difference in his results should be night and day.