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Yankees James Paxton needs change in his arsenal

Perhaps the changeup is just the answer.

Tampa Bay Rays v New York Yankees Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

In James Paxton’s most recent start against the formidable Rays offense, he looked dominant (at first). He threw just 49 pitches to cruise through four innings, with six strikeouts and a walk. In the fifth, the walls came crashing in, as Paxton needed 34 pitches to record three outs, but only after he walked three more batters, gave up all three of his earned runs, and then didn’t return for the sixth.

After the game, Paxton’s day got worse, as Aaron Boone announced he would need an MRI, and yesterday, he was added to the Injured List with a Grade 1 forearm flexor strain—an injury with a median recovery time of over a month. In 20.1 innings, Paxton is sporting a beefy 26 strikeouts, but carrying an even more bloated 1.48 WHIP and 6.64 ERA, primarily due to his well-covered, precipitous drop in fastball velocity. However, If Paxton is able to return to the field shortly after his 10-day IL stint, he may have just begun to figure out a way to achieve success even without the power fastball, a pitch that’s dropped three mph since last season.

The drop in velocity has led to increased success against Paxton’s fastball and cutter. In 2020, hitters are swinging at more of his pitches than ever before, eclipsing 70% for the first time in his career. When hitters put Paxton’s fastball and cutter in play, they’re slugging well over .600 on both pitches.

My colleague, Peter Brody, theorized a new path to success for Paxton—an increased usage of his changeup. It’s almost as if someone on the Yankees’ staff was listening, as Paxton’s upped his changeup usage in each successive start this year, starting at 5% and climbing all the way up to 18% in Thursday’s outing. In past years, it’s a pitch Paxton’s never thrown more than 10% of the time, and not more than 2.4% of the time since 2016.

To date, his changeup has worked exceptionally well. Paxton has yet to allow a hit on it, and is generating an unfathomable 68.4 whiff% on swings against his changeup. Paxton’s change-piece possesses the uncommon combination of an above-average break on both the vertical and horizontal planes. Shockingly, this newly preponderant pitch also has the seventh-highest spin rate among all changeups, saddled in between aces known for their change, Sonny Gray (sixth) and Clayton Kershaw (eighth). Even more surprising, Paxton’s throwing the pitch with 200 more RPM than he ever has in prior seasons—the jump from above average spin to legitimately elite.

Though Paxton’s clearly made some sort of improvement to his changeup, having quality stuff is only part of the equation. Equally important, if not more-so, is the ability to upset a hitter’s rhythm by changing speeds with pitches that look like strikes. Paxton has been most comfortable going to the changeup when he’s been ahead of or even with a batter. 84% of all of his changeups have come in such counts, but only eight of his 45 total changeups have been thrown for strikes. When Paxton needs to put a batter away, the drifting movement and chase location play to his advantage. Here he is making Yandy Diaz forget he’s wielding a bat and not a sword:

When Paxton needs to throw the pitch for a strike, he’s proven unable to do so. On the three occasions Paxton’s thrown his changeup in a three-ball count, he’s walked the batter. Further, only eight of the 45 changeups he’s thrown this season have actually been in the zone. Since he can’t consistently throw the pitch for a strike, selective hitters can effectively take as soon as they recognize a changeup out of his hand. The few times Paxton’s thrown the changeup in the zone, he’s generated swings and misses, foul tips, and taken strikes, but he hasn’t shown that he is able or willing to do so with regularity. For example, this changeup starts middle-middle but fades to the outside edge:

To a right-handed batter, this is a difficult pitch to stay on plane with as it floats away from their swing path, even though it’s a clear strike. It might be a little more elevated than Paxton would ideally like, but the pitch is deceptive enough that he can get away with a hair of imprecision.

Paxton’s old-reliable, his knuckle-curveball, is still as effective as it’s ever been. 2020 hitters have posted a measly .165 xBA and .185 wOBA on the pitch. FanGraphs still has it rated as more valuable than his changeup. Further, it’s a pitch he throws in the zone even more often than he tries to get hitters to chase. If Paxton can pitch backwards, throwing the change and curve earlier and more often, he can play the two pitches off each other as they break in opposite directions, avoid his meager fastballs, and increase his overall effectiveness. Paxton’s likely had some bad luck with an ERA more than 2 runs higher than his FIP and xFIP, but he needs to make a change if he wants to return to being a solid major league starter without relying on blowing hitters away with the fastball.