aYesterday I explored the reasons why the Yankees can feel optimistic about James Paxton. While his velocity against the Rays was still down a few ticks from previous seasons, there was life on his fastball that was notably absent in his first two starts. However, even with said life, every MPH decrease in fastball velocity means the pitcher must be that much more precise with his location.
No amount of life was going to save this pitch. You’re just not gonna sneak a 93 MPH fastball middle-in past a major league hitter.
Paxton, a power-pitching left-hander, has seen his effectiveness neutered without the weapon of high velocity gas. If this sounds like a familiar story, that’s because the Yankees went through this very problem with CC Sabathia six years ago.
The former Yankees ace profiled very similarly to James Paxton for the first 12 years of his career. CC was one of if not the premier left-handed power-pitchers in the game, relying heavily on a four-seamer which was at or near the top of the lefty velocity leaderboards for over a decade.
And like Paxton, both have seen the velocity sapped from their fastballs in large part due to injury (offseason back surgery for Paxton, right knee surgery for Sabathia in 2014). Much has been made of the significant drop in Paxton’s release point, and the fact he has mentioned trying to achieve the correct posture at release suggests these symptoms from his surgery underlie the current velocity troubles. For Sabathia, the knee surgery rendered him unable to create a stable base when landing on his right leg, which impacted both velocity and command.
Sabathia understood that to prolong his longevity in the league, he needed to reinvent himself as a pitcher as the velocity continued to diminish. The biggest factor for Sabathia in turning this page on his career was embracing the cutter. He achieved this with constant support from a former teammate and master of crafty pitching: Andy Pettitte.
Pettitte was never a power-pitcher in his own regard, and so he had to develop the tools necessary to have a successful 16-year career in the bigs. This meant getting creative with pitch sequencing and location, and executing every offering down to the inch. A major weapon that facilitated this success was the cutter.
Sabathia spent over two years honing the cutter under Pettitte’s tutelage, and it transformed from a seldom-used, mediocre pitch to his primary offering and most valuable pitch in the final years of his career according to FanGraphs. When Sabathia arrived in New York, he threw his fourseamer almost 50% of the time, and averaged close to 95 MPH on the pitch. By the time his final year in pinstripes rolled around, he threw the fourseamer only 0.4% of the time at just under 90 MPH, while he used the cutter a whopping 42.6% of the time.
How does this all apply to James Paxton? If the velocity does not return, Sabathia and Pettitte are the keys to him opening a new chapter as a starter. Like Sabathia at the start of his velocity woes, Paxton’s cutter is not a very effective pitch, registering a negative pitch value according to FanGraphs. With input from Sabathia and Pettitte, Paxton can refine the cutter to the point that it becomes a legitimate weapon. Now that he has one less bullet in his arsenal after being disarmed of the upper-nineties heater, Paxton needs to maximize the effectiveness of his other offerings, starting with the cutter.
That brings me to the second area where Sabathia’s and Pettitte’s guidance will pay dividends: the changeup. The two retired vets always sported a decent changeup throughout their careers, and it became an increasingly important weapon as they entered their later years.
Paxton has upped his changeup use markedly in the early goings, throwing it 8.9% of the time vs. 1.3% last year, and according to FanGraphs it has been his second-best pitch. If he can maintain its effectiveness, throwing it off a newly-redeveloped cutter, I am certain he will see the same improvements Sabathia did as he evolved as a pitcher. Sabathia’s BABIP fell below .300 for the first time since his velocity dropped the year he fully embraced the cutter. Paxton could use that kind of improvement as his BABIP currently stands at an astronomical .481 as he tries to pitch without overpowering velocity.
This wouldn’t be the first time that Sabathia provided guidance to the current generation of Yankees starters. Jordan Montgomery expressed his gratitude for Sabathia “pumping his tires” while working back from Tommy John surgery as well as crediting the big man for coaching him on cutter usage. Sabathia has clearly embraced this new post-retirement mentorship role, as it allows him to continue to contribute to the organization he loves.
The Yankees will certainly hope not to be forced down the path described above. Paxton is two years younger than Sabathia when the velocity troubles set in, and he and the Bombers would love to see a return to his overpowering form. If his fastball does not tick up, however, all is not lost. In CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte, he has the two most qualified teachers to guide him through a new, control-oriented phase of his career.