Heading into the 2020 season, the Yankees rotation looked its strongest in years. They had just signed super-ace Gerrit Cole, and had two other ace-types in James Paxton and Luis Severino ready to slot in behind Cole to form one of the scariest three-headed monsters of all the starting staffs in baseball. Then injuries struck. Paxton went under the knife to repair a peridiscal cyst in his back while Severino was lost for the year to Tommy John surgery.
Forecasts were optimistic on Paxton, as he was expected to return to pitch in the 2020 season. The COVID-19 delay to Opening Day gave him even more time to rehab, and he was available to make his first start without any missed time in the regular season. Unfortunately, that was the last good news the Yankees would receive when it came to the lefty hurler.
2020 Statistics: 5 games, 20.1 IP, 6.64 ERA, 4.37 FIP, 4.47 xFIP, 11.5 K/9, 3.1 BB/9, 0.3 fWAR
2021 Contract Status: Free agent
Paxton was knocked out of his first start of the season against the Nationals after only one inning. He gave up three earned runs, but infinitely more worrying was the fact that his four-seamer topped out at 92.6 mph. What happened to the flame-throwing southpaw who could occasionally touch triple digits? A discussion of Paxton’s struggles begins and ends with this diminished fastball.
Paxton’s average fastball velocity was down a fair few ticks, from 95.4 mph across his previous two seasons to 92.1 mph in 2020. His maximum fastball also suffered — as he never cracked 95 mph — his fastest pitch of the season was a 94.8 mph pitch to strikeout Michael Chavis of the Red Sox. This is particularly concerning for a pitcher who routinely lived in the upper-nineties the season before, when he threw 31 four-seamers at 98 mph or higher. It may seem obvious, but batters perform worse as velocity increases.
You can see how much better hitters fared when Paxton’s fastball velocity fell off a cliff. They posted the highest wOBA against him in 2020, as he pitched with the lowest average velocity four-seamer of his career. And this was not just performance against the fastball, but against all pitches. Paxton’s efficacy overall suffered as a result of his neutered fastball.
Paxton’s 2020 season was not all doom and gloom. There were a handful of positive developments for the lefty, many of which were consequences of the aforementioned loss of velocity. Paxton’s knucklecurve was actually more effective than in 2019. Even though the whiff rate was down, he put away hitters at a higher clip and generated a greater percentage of groundballs.
The most intriguing improvement from 2020 was the refinement of his changeup as a legitimate fourth offering. Batters slugged the proverbial donut against the change, and it’s easy to see why. In terms of movement profile, the pitch went from a well-below-average offering to one of the better changeups in the game. Paxton gained about 10 more inches of sink and about 3.5 more inches of horizontal run on the change relative to his career average. This is in part due to it having less velocity, as a slower pitch has more time to break on its path to the plate, but also on a concerted effort on his part to integrate it into his pitch mix more.
So where does this leave the Big Maple as winter draws nearer? Speaking with NJ Advance Media’s Brendan Kuty, Paxton’s agent Scott Boras claimed his client was not fully rehabbed from back surgery last winter. “The truth of the matter was, his ability to be James Paxton, it just needed a few months more of rehab on his back and his strength,” Boras said. “Getting the velocity, getting the balance and being able to torque his back the way it was, just after the surgery, he just needed time.”
Boras also speculated that the forearm flexor pain that ended Paxton’s 2020 seasons was a reaction to overcompensating for the injured back, rather than an injury concern going forward. Obviously, Boras’ job is to pump up his client in the hope of securing the maximum payday this offseason, so everything he says should be taken with a grain of salt. However, if Boras’ assertion that Paxton is fully healed, throwing gas and ready to pitch for talent evaluators is true, The Yankees may yet have interest in a one-year pillow contract with their former employee.
The 2020 season was the worst possible outcome for both James Paxton and the Yankees. After his 2019 season, Paxton looked to be the crown jewel of this offseason’s starting pitching class. His chances of securing a mega-deal went down the drain with his injury-ravaged 2020, and the team’s championship hopes suffered a mortal blow with the loss of their middle rotation lefty. Ultimately, Paxton’s value on the open market will be dictated by the state of his fastball. Every mile per hour he can recover will add millions and/or years to his prospective contract. I can only hope that Paxton can rediscover his form, as he is one of the more exciting pitchers to watch when he is dealing.