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How James Paxton became the Yankees’ most reliable pitcher

The big left-hander’s knee is healthy, but his curve has become as helpful to his resurgence

MLB: New York Yankees at Boston Red Sox Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Landing James Paxton was the Yankees’ most exciting move of the offseason, and gave the team a left-handed power pitcher who would pair as a brilliant 1B to Luis Severino. Of course, the Severino part of that plan has only just come to fruition, and for a while, it looked like Paxton would have a disappointing first year in the Bronx, too.

At the end of June, Paxton was almost exactly a league average pitcher—useful to have, but far from the dominant force that Yankee fans were expecting. He of course was one of many Yankees dealing with injury, in this case a balky knee, and more than likely came back too early to relieve pressure on an overworked starting staff. This rush led to a string of games where he failed to reach the fifth inning in five of six starts.

Since getting healthy, Paxton has looked much more like the pitcher the team thought they acquired. He worked at least six innings in two-thirds of his starts in the second half, saw his strikeout rate climb while his walk rate dropped, and his ERA fell a quarter of a run. His knee is undeniably a big part of his season, but there’s been another factor at play too:

As Paxton has gotten closer to 100%—and grown much more effective—he’s also leaned more on his curveball. In particular, he’s worked it inside to right-handers, to counter his lack of the now-ubiquitous hard slider that seemingly everyone throws these days.

Throwing curves inside, to right-handers, is not something you generally see. Paxton is in the top 10 among left-handed pitchers in inside curves, and top 15 of all pitchers in baseball. If you hang the curveball, it’s a slow moving, flat pitch right over the middle-in swing-path of a hitter. Showing the confidence to attack hitters inside with this kind of risky pitch has become a hallmark of Paxton’s resurgence, and a credit to Yankee development.

Thinking about player development only in terms of prospects and the farm system misses so much about what MLB teams are trying to do. Others have covered this better—The MVP Machine to start—but clubs work just as hard to tweak and improve the players on their 25-man roster as they do the guys on the Double-A roster. The Yankees have excelled at this, despite struggling with in-house pitching prospects.

We used to think the Yankees were just an anti-fastball team, but we know that’s not true. Paxton has always relied on his four-seamer, and even Masahiro Tanaka, the poster child for working away from the fastball, has seen his four-seam usage climb 20% in 2019. The Yankees’ philosophy isn’t built on avoiding fastballs, but on developing more ideal pitches and focusing on them, whatever they happen to be.

James Paxton looks to be the best pitcher in the Yankees’ rotation right now —at least until Luis Severino reestablishes himself—and is certainly the one the team will ask the most of come October. Having a healthy knee can’t be overstated, but trusting that curve and attacking hitters directly with it has been every bit as critical.