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James Paxton and the importance of adaptability

Big Maple did his homework and walked away with great results.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at New York Yankees Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

James Paxton pitched the second-best game of his career on Tuesday night. His eight innings of shutout ball against the Red Sox registered a game score of 89, which trailed only his no-hitter in Toronto last season. The gem caught the attention of Yankees fans, who now presumably understand why the team acquired the southpaw in the first place,

Paxton’s outing featured a lot to like. He struck out 12 batters, escaped a jam, and got fired up on the mound. The most revealing aspect, however, came after the game, when Big Maple provided his won assessment.

“I was working with my mechanics, you know, and found the delivery I wanted to find,” he explained after the game. “This allowed my arm to come through and just [be] really aggressive.”

Paxton’s aggressiveness manifested in two areas: velocity and strike throwing. The left-hander averaged 97 mph on his four-seam fastball, pumping up to 99 on a few occasions. He even maintained that velocity through the later innings. In his three previous starts, his heater averaged around 95.1 mph.

When it comes to pounding the zone, 70.9% of Paxton’s pitches went for strikes on Tuesday. He averaged just a 64.7% strike rate over his other starts on the year. He elaborated more on the process after the game:

“I was just watching some video the other day and I was like, ‘Hey, that looks different, what’s different about that?’ And I just kind of thought about it and saw the differences between a couple starts I had against Boston in previous years and decided that this delivery I saw was the one I wanted to repeat.”

What mechanical changes did Paxton make? Well, the left-hander mentioned that he emphasized driving down the mound against Boston, as noted by Lindsey Adler. That adjustment, however, proves difficult to pinpoint.

Consider this home run Big Maple served up to Jose Altuve.

That pitch clocked in at 95 mph. Now compare it to the blazing 99.1 mph fastball that Paxton used to strike out Eduardo Nunez.

Those deliveries look similar, don’t they? Paxton’s hands break at the same time, and his stride appears unchanged. The landing point, however, proves tricky to assess. The Yankee Stadium camera provides a poor angle to see exactly where Paxton’s front leg makes contact on the mound. It’s possible he drove farther down, but for now, we need more evidence to make an authoritative statement.

That said, the exact location of his landing point is secondary to the key piece to the story. That Paxton identifies areas to improve and makes adjustments stands out as critically important. That skill helps in the long run of the regular season, but will prove vital in the postseason, when one may pitch against the same team twice in a given week.

Time will tell if Paxton’s start was just beating up on a scuffling Red Sox team, or a turning point in his season. His willingness to adapt and improve, however, represents an encouraging sign in an otherwise gloomy April.