Going Deep: James Paxton is Acing Up

The Yankees may have gotten an ace starting pitcher after all. James Paxton has been pitching like one over the past few weeks, and Matt Wallach looks into Paxton's hot stretch and what he's improved that makes him the team's best pitcher going into the postseason.

One of the main talking points surrounding the July 31st trading deadline was that the New York Yankees needed to acquire a starting pitcher. Fans, reporters and analysts all agreed that the team needed a top of the line starting pitcher to separate themselves from the other top teams in baseball and aid their World Series hunt. This was in no way an outrageous request, as the team’s starting pitching was in shambles in the weeks leading up to the deadline. Things really came to a head during two late July series against the Minnesota Twins and the Boston Red Sox, which saw the team lose four out of seven against the two teams in which the starting pitching got absolutely shelled. CC Sabathia gave up eleven earned runs in his two starts in that stretch, Domingo German, the early season hero of the Yankees rotation also gave up eleven in his two starts and J.A. Happ and Masahiro Tanaka were even worse. Even the focus of this article, James Paxton, wasn’t a saving grace either, as he allowed seven earned runs in his four-inning start that week.

The pressure certainly was on Brian Cashman and Crew to acquire a starting pitcher or two. As July 31st approached, the Yankees were rumored to be close to acquiring Robbie Ray from the Arizona Diamondbacks, and they had interest in Aaron Sanchez and Ken Giles from the Toronto Blue Jays, with the latter helping the rotation by shortening how long their starters needed to actually pitch. However, those deals obviously fell through, or never even got serious, and the Yankees saw themselves stand pat at the deadline and the rotation continued to sputter through August 15. In the first half of the month, the starting unit posted a 4.56 ERA and 5.53 FIP through August 15, with that FIP mark being better than only some of the worst teams in baseball.

Fortunately for the Yankees, their starters have picked a good time to heat up. Since August 16th, the Yankees rotation has the ninth-best ERA at 4.00 and the eighth-best FIP at 4.03, and it has been James Paxton who has led the charge. He has cemented himself as the team’s best starting pitcher and finally living up to his hype as the offseason prized, as well as making many forget about the team’s inability to acquire a starting pitcher before the deadline. Yup, Paxton is back to his ace-level form and at just the right time, both for the Yankees and maybe more importantly, for his fantasy owners in the middle of a championship fight.

Coming into the season, Paxton was pretty much defined as a starting pitcher, meaning who he is as a pitcher was pretty much set. Since 2016, he has been primarily a three-pitch pitcher featuring a four-seam fastball, a cutter and a curveball. He’s had plenty of success with that mix, putting up the 11th most WAR and one of the top strikeout rates among starting pitchers in that time. That combination of pitches has usually been pretty lethal for Paxton, but this season, his fastball has been a troubling pitch for him compared to his other offerings:

Paxton – Pitch Performance 2019

That doesn’t look too great, but the thing is, it was even worse before that. Before August, Paxton’s fastball had a .313 batting average against with a .572 slugging to go with it. All of that adds up to a .407 wOBA allowed on the fastball in that span. Just eyeballing it, going from the off-putting .313/.572/.407 AVG/SLG/wOBA combination to the one on the table above gives the impression that Paxton must have been getting great results on the fastball in the weeks since to bring those numbers down.

Indeed, he has, as the improving fastball has been one of the main reasons for Paxton’s comeback since August began. Since that time, his four-seamer has been one of the best in baseball. Here’s how the pitch stacks up among the four-seamers of other pitchers who have thrown a minimum of 150 pitches since August 1:

Without a doubt, Paxton’s fastball has been one of the best in baseball recently. Now, you don’t usually just see such a drastic change in results like this without some sort of change elsewhere and I don’t think Paxton all of a sudden got better results on this pitch just out of nowhere. He missed virtually all of May with a knee issue, and when he came back, he noted that he was still feeling the effects of the injury and that it was having an impact on his mechanics and delivery. He continued to pitch through the pain, where he had some good starts but also a lot of bad starts, but continued to make adjustments. Now that he’s finally pain-free, Paxton has been pitching as well as he’s pitched all season. The biggest adjustment, however, has been with his pitch mix.

While he has primarily relied on the same three pitches for most of his career, the rates at which he throws them haven’t been as stable as in the past. Looking back to the 2017 season to now, here is how Paxton distributed his pitches:

For the first time in the past three seasons, Paxton has been using his cutter more often than his curveball—6% more often in 2019 than in 2018 and a whopping 10% more than he did in 2017. It’s not a bad pitch by any means—its .302 wOBA against in 2019 is better than average, and better than the cutters of pitchers such as Marcus Stroman and Madison Bumgarner in terms of wOBA allowed—but it hasn’t been as good as his curveball. Remember from the table above that Paxton’s curveball has been by far his best pitch this year and considerably better than his cutter. His curveball also plays well with his improving fastball. See for yourself:

GIF courtesy of Rob Friedman on Twitter

Paxton, talking to Lindsey Adler of The Athletic, said this about his curveball: “My curveball plays off my fastball really well…they start off the same plane, so guys have to decide whether it’s the curveball or fastball and I think they sometimes get stuck between a little bit.” I think you can really see it in the GIF above. The two pitches look similar through release, but the late-breaking curve confuses hitters and results in a high amount of whiffs on both pitches. With a pitch that Paxton is getting good results on and has a lot of confidence in, I’d say it’s a good idea to throw it more often. Since August 1, he’s done just that:

Since August, and especially in September, Paxton is throwing his curveball at the highest rate he has all season. It’s been really extreme in September, as he’s throwing his curveball over 32% of the time, compared to June and July where he was throwing the pitch just slightly above 12% of the time. To give some more context, here are the pitchers with the top strikeout rates on curveballs since August:

Best K% on Curveballs Since August 1

Other than a ridiculously great run from Dinelson Lamet, Paxton’s curveball has been among the best in baseball since August. Hitters seemingly have almost no chance, so much so that he’s really jacking up the usage of the pitch and playing it off of his improving fastball.

While the Yankees may have struck out on getting a big-name starting pitcher at the deadline, that didn’t mean that their rotation still couldn’t improve. After months of lackluster performances and injuries from their top offseason acquisition in James Paxton, there were again rumblings in New York that maybe Paxton couldn’t quite cut it in New York and that pitching under pressure was just too much for him, not unlike the conversations about Sonny Gray a year ago.

Turns out, Paxton pitching up to his proven ability could be just as good as a big trade deadline acquisition. Determined to change the narrative about his season, and knowing that he can pitch better, Paxton continued to make adjustments on the mound. Getting healthier allowed his fastball to get back to its dominant ways and re-working his pitch mix to feature his curveball more has allowed the pitch to work well with his improved fastball.

The Yankees may not win the World Series this year, but by getting James Paxton to pitch more like his best self, they finally have what fans and analysts have said they need for a long time: a big-game, ace-level pitcher. Getting to and winning the World Series won’t be easy and they’ll have a gauntlet of superteams to run through in their road back to the top, but with an improved Paxton pitching like this in October, their odds are definitely better than what they were before.

Featured Image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)

Matt Wallach

Matt studied accounting at UAlbany, is a Yankee fan, and writes for Pitcher List and Rotoballer where he can work with even more numbers to analyze baseball players, which is a lot more fun.

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