When James Paxton takes the mound today for the Yankees’ second game of the season against the Orioles, he will do so as the marquee acquisition of the 2018 offseason. Paxton, who was acquired early in the offseason, almost became an afterthought following an often frustrating offseason despite his top-of-the-rotation talent. The reality, though, is that he is the biggest upgrade over the 2018 team: he boasts a 3.52 ERA (117 ERA+) from 2016-18 with excellent peripherals (10+ K/9, 2 BB/9, 0.9 HR/9) and overpowering stuff as a lefty.
The new Yankee has shown ace-like capability on the mound in Seattle; as both Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs and Zach Kram of The Ringer noted in November, Big Maple ranks near the top of the league in nearly every important statistical category on a per usage basis. The Yankees obviously expect more of the same from him, and perhaps even a bit more: despite his dominance, injuries have prevented Paxton from truly entering the ace conversation.
As Paxton prepares to make his Yankee debut, there are several areas on which every fan should keep their eye. Most all of them in some way are based on the tension between the Yanks’ anti-fastball approach and Paxton’s approach, and I’m really excited to see the dynamic play out. Let’s break this one down.
The Yankees have a clear anti-fastball pitching philosophy, preferring instead for their pitchers to increasingly rely on off-speed stuff with movement instead of an over-reliance on fastballs. We’ve covered this extensively at RAB, and it’s something for which the Yankees are generally known – Sonny Gray even complained about it in an interview with The Athletic (subs req’d) last month.
Last year’s mid-season acquisitions of J.A. Happ and Lance Lynn, two pitchers who use their fastball at a higher percentage than nearly anyone else, bucked the trend, but it was reasonable to wonder if that’s just because they were the best available options amid a title pursuit. But the offseason acquisition of Paxton means that the last three pitchers the Yankees have brought on board all love to throw their fastball. Here are the five pitchers who most relied on their fastball in the 2018 season:
- Lance Lynn: 88.9%
- James Paxton: 81.5%
- David Price: 74.9%
- Jon Lester: 74.8%
- J.A. Happ: 73.3%
It will be really interesting to see how this dynamic plays out throughout 2019. As Mike noted in his reaction to the Paxton trade, the Yankees let both Happ and Lynn throw tons of fastballs after the deadline, so it’s no guarantee that they tinker with Paxton. Nevertheless, I suspect we’ll see Paxton rely more on his offspeed stuff than he ever did with Seattle. The Yanks have Paxton for at least the next two years and I don’t think they’re moving away from their anti-fastball approach: Lynn, Happ and Paxton have simply been the best available pitchers.
In any case, keep an eye out for Paxton’s fastball usage. As we’ll get into in the following sections, his fastball is a true weapon, and how he and the Yankees approach this year will be fascinating. It will offer an interesting insight into both the Yankees’ own internal philosophy, Paxton’s flexibility, and if he does make a change, whether it helps him take that next step to true acehood.
If they do make a change, it will also be interesting to see how relying more on offspeed pitches will impact Paxton’s approach – something that means a lot to him.
Paxton told The New York Times that while he isn’t big on advanced analytics, he has created a stat of his own to measure his success: the percentage of at-bats in which, after three pitches, the at-bat is already completed or Paxton leads with a 1-2 count. He calls it A3P – after three pitches – and it is a neat view into Paxton’s approach. He clearly values aggression and getting ahead in the counts, which might partially explain his reliance on the fastball.
There is a good reason for this, as controlling the count obviously gives the pitcher an advantage. Batters hit only .200/.235/.289 in 0-1 counts, .155/.194/.226 when it’s 1-2 counts and 127/.150/.183 in 0-2 counts against Paxton – and while every pitcher, obviously, will perform best in pitchers’ counts, Paxton becomes nearly unhittable even when just a strike ahead.
It sounds simple enough because it is. Aggression is something that every pitcher preaches – as do the Yankees themselves – but a year and a half of watching Sonny Gray tentatively approach hitters and nibble at the corners should prove that it’s not quite as easy as it sounds.
Relying more on off-speed stuff might draw out at-bats by putting Paxton behind in the count, or it might not matter at all. For today, at least, Paxton should have no problems: The Orioles are one of the league’s free-swinging teams and we should expect Paxton to attack their AAA lineup with confidence. Beyond his first start, though, how Paxton attacks the zone will be something to watch in 2019, and how effective he is at staying ahead will be indicative of his success.
Swing and Misses
Missing bats is the name of the game for pitchers: stop the batter from making contact and you’ve done your job. Paxton is one of the league’s best at missing bats, and that’s especially exciting given his status as a flame-throwing lefty. His stuff is simply nasty – especially the fastball we just talked about. Again, to the leaderboard, this time for whiffs-per-swing on fastballs:
- Jacob deGrom: 17.3%
- Justin Verlander: 15.8%
- Max Scherzer: 15.4%
- Gerrit Cole: 15.3%
- James Paxton: 13.7%
MLB Average: 9.6%
That’s some elite company, and it alone suggests that Paxton has legitimate ace upside. Moreover, Paxton is one of only six pitchers in the last decade to log at least 150 innings as a lefty and strike out 30% or more of the batters he faced. Paxton, in addition to missing bats, limits walks, allowing only 7% (2 per 9 innings pitched) of the batters he’s faced in his career to take a free bag. Couple that with a career 25.7% (10+ per 9 innings) strikeout rate, and you’ve got yourself a pitcher who can be a real difference-maker atop the Yankee rotation.
Again, it will be fascinating to see how these trends play out in 2019, especially if the Yanks and Paxton tinker with his approach. In any event, Paxton is one of baseball’s elite talents when it comes to making batters miss, and it’s worth paying close attention to in 2019 – especially if he mixes in more offspeed stuff.
Fly Ball Percentage
Finally, Paxton has historically limited home runs, allowing less than one per 9 in his career. (When you look at it this way, Paxton makes everyone swing and miss, limits walks, and never gives up home runs. How is he not a bigger story?) He did, of course, call Safeco Field T-Mobile Park home for his career until now, and Seattle is a known pitcher-friendly park. Yankee Stadium is not that.
Derek wrote an insightful piece exploring Paxton’s home run spike in 2018 (it climbed to 1.29 per 9) that you should read, but I wanted to pull out a few of the more interesting bits: turns out Paxton gave up a lot more fly balls (41%) than he did in 2017 (32.7%), largely a function of elevating his fastball. That explains at least some of the increase in homers, but it’s also possible that 2017, where he was unhittable, was a fluke. Time will tell, as they say.
I think it’s fair to expect Paxton to surrender more home runs in New York than he did in Seattle overall, but there are ways to mitigate even the Yankee Stadium impact: Paxton can continue to miss bats and keep the ball on the ground. It’s also worth noting that if the Yankees turn him away from his fastball, that might mean reduced elevation and fewer home runs.
I have an extremely good feeling about the 2019 Yankees, and James Paxton is a big reason why. We always hear that the Yankees “need another pitcher,” even though that’s often not true, but the addition of Paxton is probably the Yankees most exciting starting pitching acquisition in some time. There is a lot to watch this year, especially related to Paxton’s fastball usage and how that impacts some of the key areas that have made him so effective. If he lives up to expectations or improves – and, if he’s healthy, I see no reason why he won’t remain one of the best in the game – James Paxton will play a big role in what has the potential to be a very big year in the Bronx.