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Analyzing James Paxton’s clunker vs. the Nationals

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What went wrong for the Yankees’ southpaw?

MLB: New York Yankees at Washington Nationals Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

The book on James Paxton in 2019 was that he had a hard time getting into starts, with the first inning statistically being his worst inning.

In the metaphor where Paxton’s 2020 season is just in its first inning, it seems the lefty hasn’t been able to leave his slow starts behind him. Paxton labored through parts of two innings in his season-opening start, surrendering three runs while allowing six of the nine batters he faced to reach base. It was certainly not the season debut that the Yankees had in mind for their No. 2 starter.

It was very apparent watching Paxton pitch that something was mechanically off for him. A pitcher that thrives on high velocity and well-placed fastballs, Paxton’s best pitch deserted him on Saturday night. His secondary offerings (curveball and cutter) also left a lot to be desired. His pitch chart shows a pitcher who wasn’t sharp, plain and simple:

Paxton did throw a high percentage of strikes Saturday night, but they were the wrong kind of strikes. Most of them were flat fastballs in the upper part of the zone. Statcast identified a whopping 57.1 percent of his pitches as having been in the hitters’ “sweet spot,” which is 24 percent higher than MLB average. Most of the pitches out of the zone also missed by a lot, making them easy to lay off.

Furthermore, Paxton’s fastball was not only missing its spot, but also its velocity. His fastball averaged just 92.4 mph, which is essentially MLB average. For a guy who has averaged 95.4 mph the last three years, that’s a steep dropoff. Now, it’s only one start, and his first of the season at that, but with Paxton coming off back surgery, it’s only natural to worry. According to Sports Illustrated’s Max Goodman, Paxton said the drop in velocity has been present since his surgery.

Paxton may be fully healthy (the surgery was done back in February), but he has not had the requisite time to build his arm strength back up against live hitters. Maybe he just needs more time to warm up. Unless the velocity remains down after his next two or three starts, it’s not something to be super concerned about yet.

The bigger issue is a new mechanical hitch that showed up for Paxton on Saturday. His release point dropped by a few inches, and it was a more significant drop than the usual blips. In the graph below (courtesy of Brooks Baseball), his release point has never been as low as it was Saturday.

You can see the change visually here, too. Paxton’s throwing motion is happening quite a few inches lower than it did last year:

What does this mean? It hints that Paxton just isn’t comfortable or built up to full strength. Successful pitchers don’t just change their release points this drastically for no reason. His manager has taken notice, too:

“I think it’s just a matter of really getting his delivery and finding that click where he’s really extending through the ball,” Aaron Boone said. “That’s kind of what he’s been searching for here these last few weeks.”

According to Boone, this is not a new problem for Paxton this season. This search for proper mechanics likely has something to do with his softer fastball and flat curveball. The key is for Boone, Paxton and new pitching coach Matt Blake to find out what is causing the discrepancy in Paxton’s release point. Whether it’s just a mental hurdle after a few months on the shelf or a sign of lingering injury, the Yankees have to get Paxton comfortable again on the mound. When he’s feeling right, he’s one of the Yankees’ best and most important pitchers.

At the end of the day, it’s important to remember that Paxton has thrown just one full inning in the majors this season. It’s much too early to jump to any conclusions. However, there are some things worth keeping an eye on in his next few starts. Chances are high that his lost velocity and inconsistent secondary pitches have something to do with that altered release point. If any of these issues continue to resurface, Paxton and the Yankees may have a problem.