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Yankees potential trade target: James Paxton

A reunion with the Big Maple, however unlikely, would represent a major rotation upgrade.

Paxton in his most recent start, against the Mets.
Paxton in his most recent start, against the Mets.
Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

A deal with a rival like Boston always seems unlikely. But riding a four-game winning streak and one game ahead of the Yankees, the Red Sox are now firmly in Wild Card contention and disinclined to sell (ditching the unproductive Kiké Hernández doesn’t count), so a trade involving the man we’ll discuss would almost have to be mutually beneficial toward the remainder of 2023 in some way. Still, the Yankees would be loath not to check in on some of the Sox’s rentals, especially their former mid-rotation stalwart James Paxton.

In fact, Paxton’s last extended look in the majors came in pinstripes. That was back in 2019, when he pitched to a 3.82/3.86 ERA/FIP across 150.2 innings. He managed all of 21.2 innings of 6.65 ERA ball for the Yankees and Mariners from 2020-21 due to back and Tommy John surgeries, with the latter costing him the entire 2022 season as well. He started this year on the IL too, with a hamstring strain that ended up holding him out until May.

So what would the Yankees want with this oft-injured 34-year-old? Well, it turns out that when the Big Maple’s healthy, he’s still really good. Through 12 starts and 65 innings this year, Paxton has posted a solid 3.46 ERA and 3.70 FIP thanks to a 29.1-percent strikeout rate, good for 16th-best among the 175 pitchers who’ve thrown at least 50 frames. His popup rate, a full 15.2 percent of his flyballs, ties for 10th in that sample and explains his low xERA (3.15); in other words, there may even be room for improvement.

The downside, of course, is injury risk. But the good news is that Paxton is a free agent after this season; if he does get injured, it won’t have any long-term team-building implications aside from the loss of whatever pieces it takes to acquire him.

Meanwhile, the upside is tremendous. When Paxton was at his best in Seattle in 2017, he tossed 136 frames of 2.98/2.61 ERA/FIP ball. That FIP is the 58th-best mark among 3,186 pitching seasons of at least 100 innings in the 21st century, right behind a season from vintage Cliff Lee and ahead of one from prime Félix Hernández. And believe it or not, after all of those injuries, the Paxton of today still bears some resemblance to the 2017 version.

For starters, Paxton’s velocity is identical. According to Baseball Savant, he’s averaged 95.5 on the heater this year, just as he did in 2017. Additionally, he’s relied on the same four-pitch mix: four-seamer, cutter, curveball, and the occasional changeup. He’s thrown the fastball and curve a bit less, primarily in favor of his cutter, but no pitch has seen its usage shift by even 10 percentage points.

Now to the changes. Even though Paxton has moved off it a bit, his fastball looks better in some ways. It has about three fewer inches of carry, but two more inches of run. This is likely due to an arm slot that’s about 3.5 inches lower:

Not only is Paxton’s release lower and more to the side, imparting more sidespin on the ball, but it all might be because he’s made his stride more direct to the plate. This has allowed him to get about five extra inches of extension, allowing his velocity to play up; maybe the side effect is that he’s letting go of the ball lower on the mound.

The release has also helped Paxton’s cutter cut a bit more, and the new slot has coupled with a slower version of the pitch to increase overall movement substantially. Further, he’s sped up his curve such that it has very little side-to-side action; the shift has made it his most effective pitch by run value this season, as it’s saved him an estimated three runs. These changes have led to the two primary Paxton offspeed offerings differing far less in terms of horizontal movement and velocity, but his curve still drops about 10 inches more; the lack of a multiplanar difference between the cutter and curve is likely making it harder for hitters to differentiate among them this season.

So there you have it. James Paxton has returned from injury, new and improved. Who knows if he’ll end up on the market (and made available to the Yankees at that), but if he can be had at a minimal long-term cost, I would be all for it.