James Paxton, also known as The Big Maple, was the Yankees biggest acquisition following the 2018 campaign. The tall southpaw came over from the Mariners, where he grew into their number one starter as Felix Hernandez declined. Paxton has made a good early impression in camp, allowing just one run in his first three starts. Despite being the prize of the team’s offseason, there seemingly hasn’t been much hubbub about him since pitchers and catchers reported. And that’s not a bad thing, rather, it seems like he’s simply put his head down and gone to work. Still, the spotlight will be on the 30-year-old once the regular season begins, especially while Luis Severino is unavailable.
The de facto ace
The Yankees already had an ace — Severino — before they acquired Paxton. Whether you want to call him and Severino 1A and 1B, or declare Paxton as a number two, one thing is for sure: he’s the ace as long as Severino’s out. Of course, an ace is just a moniker that gets thrown around. There was always going to be plenty of pressure on Paxton to perform like a top-shelf starter this season, but now with Severino’s return in question, The Big Maple’s margin for error has shrunk.
Masahiro Tanaka may have gotten the opening day nod in place of Severino, but that doesn’t minimize the importance of Paxton’s performance out of the gate. It sounds like the Yankees and Severino dodged a bullet, meaning that he could be back in mid-to-late April, but those games still matter. The rest of the rotation will need to pick up the slack and Paxton will be a major player. Leading a pitching staff is nothing new for Paxton, of course. He’s been that guy for Seattle in recent years. He should be up to the task.
Can he stay healthy?
Paxton has become quite familiar with the injured list during his major league career:
- 4/9/14 – 8/27/14: Strained left latissimus dorsi
- 5/29/15 – 9/13/15: Strained tendon in left middle finger
- 8/16/16 – 8/25/16: Left elbow contusion
- 5/5/17 – 5/31/17: Left forearm strain
- 8/11/17 – 9/15/17: Strained left pectoral muscle
- 7/13/18 – 7/30/18: Lower back inflammation
- 8/15/18 – 9/1/18: Left forearm contusion
It’s daunting to know that Paxton’s been on the shelf seven times since he reached the majors, but it’s worth noting that a couple of these injuries were merely bad luck. The elbow and forearm contusions were the result of line drives that struck him. The other maladies are a cause for concern, but on the bright side, only his forearm strain in May of 2017 is alarming. It’s been nearly two year since that injury, and fortunately, nothing else has been arm related.
We already know that the best predictor of future injury are past injuries. Unfortunately, that’s not good news for Paxton. Nonetheless, his workload has been trending in a positive direction over the past three seasons, culminating in a career high 160.1 innings last year. Chances are that the southpaw will hit the shelf at some point this season, but hopefully it’s just a short-term stint.
Pitching in a new home ballpark
I wrote about Paxton’s transition from Seattle to the Bronx about a month ago. His old home was known for it’s tilt toward pitchers, whereas his new digs is homer-friendly. Up until last season, Paxton did an excellent job preventing home runs. After running very low HR/9 numbers, he spiked to 1.29 in 2018. If that’s his true talent level with regard to home run prevention, that means another increase could be in store in pinstripes.
I’m not going to do a rewrite of my previous post here, but the point is that it will be something to watch for. Hopefully, it turns out that last year was more of a fluke driven by an inflated home run to fly ball ratio. If that’s the case, Paxton should pitch brilliantly. If not, it’s not like he’ll be useless. He still excels in many other ways that will allow him to succeed.
Will the Yankees leave him alone?
Last week, Sonny Gray made some waves about the Yankees’ pitching philosophy. In short: Gray was not pleased about the emphasis the team put on throwing breaking balls. He pretty much put the blame on the Yankees for his struggles during his tenure in the Bronx. Even though things didn’t work out with Gray, there’s a reason the Yankees have implemented an anti-fastball philosophy: it generally works. If Gray taught the team anything, it’s that a one size fits all approach probably doesn’t work, despite Gray’s underlying numbers making his breaking pitches look great.
We shouldn’t have to worry about the team making any drastic tweaks to Paxton’s style. He throws his fastball and cutter more than three-quarters of the time, for good reason. Not only has it proven very effective for him, but his curveball doesn’t look like something with significant potential. It’s not that it’s a bad pitch, but rather, that it doesn’t appear to have too much upside by throwing it more often. It’s in the third percentile, or near the very bottom, of the league in terms of spin rate.
The team will certainly look for ways to help Paxton improve, but there isn’t any reason to think it’ll be via the anti-fastball approach. It could be something to help with command, for instance.
PECOTA: 156 innings, 3.32 ERA, 3.44 DRA, 3.6 WARP
ZiPS: 147.1 innings, 3.54 ERA, 3.36 FIP, 3.6 WAR
Steamer: 172 innings, 3.47 ERA, 3.48 FIP, 4.0 WAR
The consensus is that Paxton will be very good this year, which comes as no shock. Playing time is where these systems differ. Steamer is the closest to a full year’s work, but clearly, all systems expect some missed time.
Would you sign up for a mid-3 ERA like these systems project? Paxton authored a 3.76 ERA last season, though he’s also just a year removed from a 2.98 ERA. That’s more like the kind of number we’re all dreaming of. That’s more or less the difference between an ace and a solid number two or three starter. Any of those outcomes would be just fine, but having another frontline starter would be ideal (obviously).
I’m really excited to watch Paxton this year. I think in past years, I would have been a bit more worried about acquiring someone like him because of his injury history. Would it be great to have a staff of 200 innings workhorses? Of course. But baseball has changed, for better or worse, over the last decade or so and there simply aren’t a bunch of a 200 inning pitchers lying in wait anymore. Paxton has the ability to be one of the league’s best starters on a per inning basis, and he certainly appears capable of giving 150 stellar innings this year. If he can do that and pitch well in the postseason, no one will care if he doesn’t make 32 or 33 regular season starts.