When the Yankees signed Gerrit Cole, it appeared they turned an area of weakness, their starting rotation, into a strength in one fell swoop. And even when Luis Severino went down with Tommy John surgery, the starting five still looked to be one of the most dangerous in the league. A quarter of the way into the season, these notions are beginning to unravel.
Cole, while still plenty effective, has not yet reached the commanding form from his Houston days; J.A. Happ, after a strong spring, is back to his home-run-surrendering ways; Jordan Montgomery has been hit-or-miss. The biggest concern, however, is the startling drop in velocity from the team’s number two, James Paxton.
After a rocky start to his Yankees career, Paxton established himself as one of the most dominant left-handed pitchers in the game. In his final 11 starts of the 2019 season, he went 10-0 with a 2.51 ERA and 69 strikeouts in 61 innings pitched. His success was owed in large part to an uptick in knuckle=curve usage and its ability to change speeds relative to his fastball.
It is important to note that the effectiveness of the knuckle-curve would be rendered moot without the presence of that overpowering fastball. At 95.7 mph, his fourseamer had the second highest average velocity of all left handed starting pitchers in 2019. Paxton’s fastball also has the stereotypical life seen with a traditional four-seamer. This illusion of rise is what allows the pitch to stay above bats and generate swings-and-misses.
Unfortunately for Paxton and the Yankees, he is missing both of these critical components to a potent fastball. So far he is averaging 92.4 MPH on the four-seamer, more than three mph slower than last season. He is also averaging 3.5 inches less rise on the pitch. This could be due to a whole host of factors, including spin rate, spin efficiency, finger placement, hand orientation, etc. Whatever the case, the results are quite stark.
Here we see a vintage Paxton fourseamer against Baltimore last year. Obviously the first thing that sticks out is the velocity at 97. Equally impressive is the movement profile of the pitch. See how the fastball stays level and finishes above the zone? The batter swings right underneath it as gravity never quite seems to take effect.
Contrasted with the first clip, this is what happens when Paxton’s fastball lacks both velocity and rise. That the pitch was thrown at 91 is certainly troubling. But perhaps just as if not more worrisome is the absence of rise. You can see how the ball drops right into the zone and right onto Xander Bogaerts’ bat. Paxton is no longer capable of blowing away hitters nor fooling them with fastball movement.
Finally we get to some good news. Paxton showed flashes of his 2019 fastball on Sunday against the Rays. While the velocity was not up by a considerable amount, the pitch exhibited the characteristic rise that makes it so hard to hit. What blew away Manuel Margot not because of the 93 mph velocity, but the fact the pitch stayed on plane throughout its path to the catcher, causing Margot to whiff beneath the pitch.
David Cone mentioned on the YES broadcast of the game that he too was seeing more life on the fastball against the Rays. Paxton generated far more swings-and-misses and weak contact on the fastball than in his previous two starts. According to Statcast, on Sunday the fourseamer had two more inches of rise than in the first two games. Accordingly, Paxton was able to use it to devastating effect, inducing more whiffs (28% vs. 16.5% whiff rate) and strikeouts (46.2% vs. 9.1% put-away rate) relative to those first two starts.
There are many possible explanations for this improvement. Paxton and Boone admitted that these issues were mechanics-related, which is perfectly understandable coming off winter back surgery. Maybe he has started to fix these mechanical problems, perhaps optimizing his finger placement and wrist orientation at release. That he averaged around 100 RPM more on the fastball on Sunday relative to his first two games speaks to this possibility.
If he is able to get his fingers more over the top of the baseball, this would also increase the spin efficiency of the pitch, as it would be rotating closer to the optimal spin axis for a four-seamer. The eye-test would back this hypothesis up, as we saw with the improved life on the pitch on Sunday. Whatever the reason, his performance gives the Yankees reason for encouragement.
In the end though, the lack of velocity on the fastball (plus some criminal bullpen mismanagement by Boone) lost the Yankees the game and exposed the fragility of the starting rotation. The most obvious path back to success for Paxton is finding the velocity. If he is unable to do so, all is not lost. Tomorrow I will be exploring the alternate route Paxton can take if his velocity is gone for good. Stay tuned!
This is a huge year for Paxton and the Yankees. The Bombers need their number two to pitch as he did in the second half of 2019 if they are going to be successful in the postseason. As for Paxton, this is a contract year and probably the last chance at a contract of generational wealth proportions. There are tens of millions of dollars riding on his ability to recover the lost velocity on his fastball. No pressure.