I love James Paxton. When the Yankees landed him from Seattle, I was ecstatic. He’s exactly the kind of pitcher I like, offering high, hard fastballs and a breaking ball that makes the best hitters in the world look stupid. He’s Canadian. He’s still the only player whose BreakingT shirt I actually own.
Paxton was also never really everything we wanted as a pitcher. He came to New York and was exactly as advertised, striking out a higher rate of batters than any Yankee starter except for literally Gerrit Cole while he was in the Bronx. In fact, on a per batter basis, Paxton was the second-best pitcher on the club across the two seasons he was here, trailing only Cole in K-BB%, ERA, and FIP. But of course, the other side of Paxton was evident, as he only threw 171 innings in pinstripes, and his entire 2020 was overshadowed by a serious of ailments that cut his velocity and significantly reduced his effectiveness.
But then, there was October 18, 2019. The Yankees were facing elimination, down 3-1 to the Astros in the ALCS. It was Game 5, Paxton was toeing the slab in the Boogie Down Bronx, and he delivered his signature moment with the club:
Six innings, nine strikeouts, one run allowed. On the hill for the Astros was Justin Verlander, the man who has tormented the Yankees in the postseason so many times. Although starting pitchers never really face each other in the AL, you’re graded against how the other guy does. You match your best against theirs. The Yankees traded for James Paxton for exactly this type of start, and for one night, he was everything we wanted.
Remember what I said about those high, hard fastballs? Paxton actually got Springer twice that night, sitting perhaps the best playoff performer of his generation down in the fifth with a buckling curve.
I’ve re-watched Paxton’s start and I’m not sure if it’s a dominant start. I don’t know what connotation you have with “dominant.” Paxton walked four guys, gave up four hits, and spiked a ball in the first inning that Gary Sánchez had no chance of blocking, leading to an early 1-0 Houston lead.
However, there’s something about this kind of start that is just naturally appealing. I used to think this about Roy Halladay a lot, as he would look a little off early during the first inning or so. In fact, both Doc and Paxton struggled in the first, relative to the rest of their performance, with Halladay’s ERA in the first more than a run above the rest of the game, and his SO/W ratio the lowest of any inning. Of course, Paxton was a different pitcher after the first inning, to the degree that some people campaigned for a personal opener.
But then, of course, after the first inning, Roy Halladay was Roy Halladay. And on October 18, 2019, James Paxton was right up there with him. The control issues were still there, but so too was that special feeling you get when certain pitchers have the ball on certain nights. Indeed, with two outs in the sixth, Aaron Boone came out to conference with Paxton, and all Big Maple had to say was “I’m good. Let’s go.” Paxton finished the inning with a fly ball to left, and three innings later, the Yankees were headed back to Houston for Game 6.
Yeah, that’s 2019 Rookie of the Year Yordan Álvarez whiffing.
For me, the 2019 playoff run was special. I had quit a job that, as Meg Rowley would put it, overpaid me relative to my value to society. I packed everything I owned into a Jetta and drove 40 hours to a city where I knew nobody, having to build a new network and new friendships, while also having to come out a thousand times again. It was a time of immense transition for me, but we all had Yankees baseball — and of course, such a cornerstone of Yankee baseball is deep playoff runs.
I’m leery of over-romanticizing baseball, partially because I’m not good at it, and partially because it’s done too much. But I have used the game as a mile marker of sorts, especially as it relates to the academic calendar. Going to cheap games at Comerica Park on 40-degree April nights was a hallmark of my undergrad. The 2009 World Series was my freshman year of high school, another transitional time.
The 2019 Yankees — and in particular, the playoff series with Minnesota and Houston — were an anchoring point for me in what was otherwise a pretty chaotic year. The way the Yankees brushed aside the Twins was as close to baseball normalcy as we could get, and the showdown between the two AL titans was what everyone wanted from a championship series. Paxton took the ball on a chilly night in the Bronx to extend that anchor point, for one more game at least, and I’m thankful for that.
James Paxton never was what we wanted as a Yankee. The injury troubles sidelined him more than we expected, and control issues sprung from continual tinkering around just what pitches he should be using more. You’d be forgiven for being disappointed in Paxton’s time with New York.
But I’m still rooting for him. He’s still an aesthetically pleasing pitcher to watch. He’s still Canadian. And in the one start the Yankees absolutely needed him to win, he chewed his way through one of the most formidable opponents of this era. Happy trails, James.