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Yankees Mailbag: James Paxton, player development and strike zones

Get the answers to this week’s mailbag right here.

New York Yankees v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images

Good morning everyone, get your answers to this week’s mailbag here. Remember to send in your questions for our weekly call by e-mail to pinstripealleyblog [at] gmail [dot] com.

Kyle Ren asks: I am optimistic about Paxton’s last start, however I believe he is still a “work in progress” because the velocity still is not quite at his standards…your thoughts?

It definitely still feels like it’s touch-and-go for Paxton. He had a significantly stronger performance in his last outing against Tampa Bay, but stayed on the mound for a bit too long and got beat on some pitches. Overall it was a line that you could live with, because the Yankees should normally be in every game if their starter only gives up three runs or so, but in that case it took the wind out of their sails in a series where they definitely struggled.

The problem is that if this reduced velocity is here to stay, every single start will be one to watch and see if Paxton has adjusted to it or not. It’s something that a pitcher can definitely adapt over time, but discovering it midseason will lead to some struggles (especially a season as short as this one). Work in progress definitely fits here, and hopefully it’s something that the team will make progress on over time rather than flipping a coin to see if Paxton can make it through his outing.

The idiot that said, “Harper is coming” asks: With no typical minor league season and only an alternate location for expanded roster members to stay ready, shouldn’t we all be concerned about the adverse effects on prospects development? Since players outside of the expanded roster can not be traded, AND player development is a concern, wouldn’t it make sense to possible move some of that talent for the “sure thing” MLB talent in a trade if possible?

There’s definitely concern to be had over prospects’ development paths this season with no minor league baseball, though that is a concern that every single team shares. The Yankees have a lot of prospects near the top of their minor-league system, so many were natural fits for the alternative training site, which helps somewhat. Clint Frazier described it as an extension of spring training while he was down there, and while that may not be ideal it’s certainly better than just sitting on the couch.

The Yankees did select some of their more prized prospects that aren’t close to the majors, like Estevan Florial, to join the 60-man roster for camp, so they are getting some work in. The system’s blue-chips shouldn’t be as adversely impacted, though there probably will still be some sort of setback. I do agree that choosing to sell high on some prospects now would be a wise decision to make for a team in a win-now mode, but the problem will mainly be finding a trading partner.

Not only are more teams theoretically in contention with the expanded playoffs, but coordinating scouting data on the players that are eligible to be traded will be difficult. Teams are going to be hesitant to make trades with such uncertainties present, when the margin for error in making deals during normal times is already large. That’s not even getting into the logistics and ethics of trading a player during a pandemic, though some small trades have already happened across the league.

Steve B asks: Do you think the eventual advent of an automated strike zone will significantly change the approach pitchers use when facing batters? I welcome the day when we no longer see so many missed calls on borderline pitches, but I wonder how automated balls and strikes might change the game.

There’s definitely going to be a shift in pitching philosophy if and when automated strike zones enter MLB. They’ve shown that they’re not perfect in their trial runs through the Atlantic League, and while it is infrequent, the calls are often so questionable that the human umpires have to step back in. We’re a long way away from seeing it be brought up to MLB in my opinion, but let’s talk a bit about what it could do to influence pitchers.

One major change that impacted how pitchers in the Atlantic League threw during the test run was the shift in the strike zone itself. The system called high strikes at a significantly higher rate than human umpires, and tightened up the zone on down and away pitches according to an article from Baseball America last year. This change benefited flame-throwing fastball pitchers, but severely hurt finesse pitchers that worked horizontally to entice hitters to expand the zone.

For the Yankees in particular, this kind of change would be beneficial to them. Their minor league rosters carry dozens of hurlers who can top off anywhere from 95 to 100 mph, and their major league rotation features two electric fastball pitchers in Gerrit Cole and Luis Severino. While Masahiro Tanaka is more of a control-oriented pitcher than a heater, his movement is largely up-and-down so it could work to his advantage as well. However, it is still a long ways away from being capable of accurately calling games at an acceptable rate, so we could be talking about an entirely different set of pitchers when it would be applied.