James Paxton came to the Yankees with the expectation of being a difference-maker. Thanks to some rotten luck, namely injuries and a hard time adjusting to his new environment, Paxton didn’t exactly light the world on fire in the early goings. He posted a 4.01 ERA and 1.43 WHIP at the All-Star break, including a 6.38 ERA over June and July. He struck a ton of batters out, but he also gave up a lot of hard contact.
However, things changed for Paxton in the second half. He went 10-2 after the All-Star break and improved to a 3.63 ERA and a 1.13 WHIP. The southpaw finished his season on the ultimate high note, tossing six innings of one-run ball in a win-or-go-home playoff game against the Houston Astros. Over a span of two months, the Big Maple became the Yankees’ most reliable starter.
What does this mean for Paxton in 2020? After the acquisition of Gerrit Cole and the returning health of Luis Severino, he’s either the club’s third or fourth starter, depending on how you evaluate Masahiro Tanaka. That’s a far cry from most of last season, when Paxton was expected to be the team’s ace.
This is a role that better suits Paxton anyway. He’s never thrown more than 160 innings in a season, and he only has one full season with an ERA+ over 120 (although he has averaged a 117 ERA+, still a good figure). Paxton is more renowned for his consistency than his dominance, much like his idol, Andy Pettitte.
While Paxton may benefit from slightly lowered expectations and growing more comfortable in his new surroundings, there are also tangible reasons to suggest that he can continue to grow more consistent in 2020.
Paxton’s greatest attribute as a pitcher is his ability to generate swings-and-misses. Each of his three pitches (fastball, cutter and curveball) have an above-average whiff rate. Paxton doesn’t even really prefer one over the other to get hitters out, which is an incredible trait. He struck out 75 batters on the heat, 50 on the curve, and 65 on the cutter. As opposed to strikeout artists who just have one dominant pitch, Paxton can use his whole repertoire to retire hitters.
Big Maple gets into trouble when his control on one of those pitches falters and he loses confidence. This can manifest itself both in and out of the zone—his 3.29 BB/9 walk rate last year was his worst since 2015, which points to an occasional loss of the control. His heat maps also show that many of his problems during the bad stretch came with how he positioned his strikes:
Notice how the dark red is concentrated higher in the zone and more over the middle in the first picture? These are hittable strikes. After July, Paxton concentrated more on pounding the lower part of the zone. This also coincides with an increase in curveball usage and effectiveness. He didn’t throw the hook as much in June and July, largely because he couldn’t trust it. Once he re-established command of the curve and got back to running a three-pitch arsenal, Paxton turned his season around.
Evaluating Paxton’s 2019 season with the Yankees is a little difficult. At times it felt like his season was a disappointment, but aside from a rough midseason spell and an unusually dominant stretch run, Paxton’s 2019 was largely within his career norms. He’s not going to become a staff ace, but the Yankees can count on 160 innings of 3.80 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, three true outcomes (strikeouts, walks, home runs) baseball with Paxton. If the Yankees can run that out as their fourth starter in a playoff series, they’re in great shape.