The Yankees are a great baseball team. At the All Star break, they’re one of the three best in the game. At this juncture, we don’t really need to talk about correcting anything with the Yankees, but rather optimizing it. And James Paxton’s usage needs to be optimized.
Simply put, of all the pitchers on the Yankee staff, Paxton is the one who would benefit most from the use of the opener. The first inning has been a dreadful one for Big Maple so far this year, and he gets beat up at the back end of starts facing the top of the lineup the third time. Pairing Paxton with a designated opener would be the best way to mitigate the adverse results we see in the first and final innings of his starts, and optimize a Yankee staff desperate to carve out any advantage they can get over the likes of the Astros and Twins.
First, it’s important to establish just how poorly Paxton has pitched in the first inning this year. Almost every starter is worse in the first, simply because they’re guaranteed to face the first three hitters in the order, usually an opponent’s best. In the first inning, MLB starters allow a .762 OPS against, roughly the production Jean Segura, Joey Votto and Paul Goldschmidt have put up this year. Pretty good hitters all of them, but hovering just about average overall.
James Paxton gives up a 1.046 OPS against in the first inning. If Paxton’s first inning was a hitter, they’d rank fourth in all of baseball in OPS, smack dab between Mike Trout and Josh Bell. This is problematic. MLB starters average a 4.64 ERA in the first inning, and Paxton’s is almost six runs higher than that. Even if you want to control for the division the Yankees play in, chock full of good hitters and hitter’s ballparks, Paxton is the worst first inning pitcher on the staff:
I don’t want this to just be a post ripping on Paxton, because I like him a lot, but we’re going to include just one more Paxton fun fact. If James Paxton was just league average in the first inning, his full season ERA would drop from 4.01 to 3.06. In short, Paxton’s first inning problems are what’s keeping him from being a real Cy Young candidate.
The simplest solution to this is just stop letting Paxton pitch the first inning. Not only is his bad first inning performance hurting him and hurting the team, I think it’s fair to say it’s hurting his ability to work deep into games. The narrative on Paxton before moving to the Bronx was that he would battle nagging injuries and see resultant IL time, but when he was on the mound he’d go as deep into games as anyone.
What has actually happened in 2019 is Paxton has by far the highest first inning ERA of his career, while also his lowest innings per start. Now, he’s averaging 92 pitches per start, and over his career has average 92.7, so he’s throwing the same number of pitches in fewer innings. This is pretty intuitive - he’s getting rocked early and so his allotted pitches are being used up - but the fact we haven’t seen average pitches per start really decline shows us there’s nothing wrong with the health of his arm. The Yankees are comfortable letting him throw as much as he always has, he’s just not working as deep.
By keeping Paxton out of the first inning, you’d re-allocate those 92-odd pitches into innings where he does much better, and you’d probably see him pitch more innings per “start,” much closer to the 5.5-6 range he’s always been in. Luckily, the Yankees have just the guy to open as well.
With the return of Domingo German, the team has five starters again, and Chad Green finds himself back in a conventional reliever role. He saw a lot of success in a string of opening assignments, with a 1.23 ERA and 10:1 K:BB ratio in his eight opens. This is clearly something that Green has seen at least small sample success with, and more importantly it’s something he’s used to.
The hard part about the opener is pitchers are creatures of habit, and it’s difficult to say how well they’ll respond to a change in the role they’ve had since high school. Green’s already responded well, which is half the battle, and Paxton has already shown himself open to new technologies and ways of analyzing the game. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say it could be easier to “convert” Paxton than a much more old-school player like CC Sabathia.
We’re talking about optimization, not correction. The Yankees are still really good, and I certainly think Paxton is better than the half season we’ve seen so far. In the midst of a very strange run of poor first innings, and with an opener suited and used to the role, the best way to optimize this Yankee staff might be to shake it up internally.