Management may not have realized it at the time, but the minute that the Yankees balked at signing Dallas Keuchel, they doubled down on James Paxton and Masahiro Tanaka as the club’s top two pitchers. While they have solid on the whole this year, they haven’t been the aces that the Yankees desperately need.
Right now, the rotation is teetering: there’s almost a whole five-man rotation of starters on the injured list, leaving only four healthy starters on the roster and the team regularly turning to “bullpen games” every fifth day. This places a greater onus than ever on the starters with the highest ceiling – Paxton and Tanaka.
This week’s Subway Series was an excellent opportunity to sweep a doubleheader against a rival by putting out the team’s top two starters. Instead, Tanaka grinded through 6.2 innings of hard contact and five runs, while Paxton was lit up for six runs in 2.2 innings in an ugly loss. While it may just seem like two bad games, it capped what has been a mediocre stretch for Paxton and Tanaka over their past three starts.
Paxton’s strikeout numbers are the best of his career this season, but his walk rate has gotten a little out of control at 3.7 BB/9. Batters are also making hard contact over 40 percent of the time against him this year, which is in the bottom 20 percent league-wide. While Paxton can deceive hitters, the results have been ugly when they make contact, or when he misses the zone. His .325 BABIP against also shows that there’s room for improvement.
As for Tanaka, he just hasn’t had command of his trademark splitter all year. He’s throwing less of them than ever before, and they’re still getting hit the most of any of his pitches (.311 batting average against, 6 HR). While his strikeout rate has declined as a result, his other rates and peripherals are all close to his averages, which points that Tanaka may be closer to a turnaround if he ever figures out his splitter.
It’s imperative that Paxton and Tanaka figure out whatever is ailing them because the pitching staff cannot carry on without them at their best. J.A. Happ and CC Sabathia are good back-end pieces, but cannot be counted on for much more than five innings in a start. Sabathia, in particular, doesn’t have the best health record either.
When Tanaka and Paxton don’t go deep into games, it strains the bullpen. Already taxed from having to pitch a whole game one out of every five turns, the top relief arms are hitting a bit of a rut right now. While it could just be a stretch of bad luck, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the bullpen has pitched worse when being relied on for more innings.
More effective versions of Tanaka and Paxton reduce the stress and workload for the bullpen. Tanaka has proven time and again that he is a big-game pitcher, and his peripherals this season aren’t as concerning as Paxton’s. I’m not as worried about him finding his place again.
With Paxton, though, we don’t have as much of a baseline, we just know that he should be better than this based on his time in Seattle. While we’re far from a Sonny Gray situation with Paxton, he’ll need to go deep into games (he’s only gone more than six innings once), he’ll have to stop walking so many batters and he must stop giving up so much hard contact. The only way to solve these problems is to have better pitch location:
Paxton’s heatmap in 2019 is concentrated higher in the zone and more inside to righties. When put together, those are danger zones for left-handed pitchers. Paxton’s whiff rate shows that his dominant stuff is still there, he just needs to locate it better.
By passing on Keuchel, the Yankees indicated they thought that their current rotation was good enough as is. While that seems unlikely, the rotation can still be solid if Paxton and Tanaka reach the heights that they are capable of. The Yankees’ rotation doesn’t have an ace right now, but it does have two guys with the ability to fill the void. It’s time for James Paxton and Masahiro Tanaka to step up.