Facing a 3-1 deficit in the ALCS, the Yankees need some key performances to stay alive in this series. One of the players currently hanging in limbo is James Paxton, and he could determine if the Yankees have a run in them when he takes the mound in Game Five.
Because of the rainout on Wednesday, the Yankees are staring down a potential of four consecutive days with games depending on if they can extend the series. The Yankees’ methodology to using their pitchers so far has been to prevent their starters from facing the the opposing lineup a third time, and to be aggressive with making moves to the bullpen. The effectiveness of that combination of moves will be stressed by the amount of innings the team’s bullpen may have to cover without a day of rest.
Paxton has been a beneficiary of both strategies, with Aaron Boone pulling him in the fifth inning of his Game One start in the ALDS against the Twins to prevent their lineup from cashing in on a tiring pitcher, and pulling him early in Game Two of the ALCS due to ineffectiveness. While it worked out in the ALDS, the bullpen wasn’t able to cover an extended performance on top of extra innings and ultimately lost to Houston. The Yankees need Paxton to give them length in his next start to make this run possible, and while he needs to make some adjustments to do so, it’s possible that he can get the job done.
Shaky command has been the theme of Paxton’s struggles so far throughout both postseason starts. Paxton has been unable to locate his curveball, falling well short of the strike zone and breaking too early to fool a smart lineup like Houston’s into assisting him to get strikes. While Paxton was able to rack up eight strikeouts in his start against Minnesota, the strikeouts that came against his curveball often looked like this:
The Twins expanded the zone against Paxton’s curve to a ridiculous degree in that start, bailing him out of some key situations. He didn’t have that luxury against Houston, who sat on his fastball and were able to string together hits, resulting in the early jams that prompted a pitching change. To have any success against the Astros Paxton needs his curve to be effective and enticing enough to keep hitters guessing.
The Yankees will also get an advantage getting Paxton a home start in this turn through the rotation. Paxton has a noticeable dropoff in performance pitching on the road, though not as dramatic as some of the other starters on the team. His WHIP spikes up nearly 30 points, and his ERA is a full run higher. Facing another duel with Justin Verlander, and especially with the Yankees needing to win against Verlander and Cole, the Yankees will need improvement across the board to return to Houston. It’ll be up to Paxton to provide a quality outing in what will probably be the biggest start of his life so far.