New York Yankees: What to expect out of Big Maple in 2020

New York Yankees, James Paxton

James Paxton was acquired in the 2018 offseason, and expectations for the former Mariner were very high coming into the 2019 season. The Yankees shipped off the talented Justus Sheffield, along with Erik Swanson and Dom Thompson-Williams. The consensus opinion on the trade was that the Yankees got one of the premier lefty arms in all of baseball, but of course, it came at the loss of – at the time – one of the more highly regarded prospects, in Sheffield.

The 2019 season for New York Yankees’ lefty ace, James Paxton:

2019 was a very interesting year for Paxton, and the stats show that it was a bit up-and-down, but ultimately, he put together a very solid season for the Bombers. Across the course of the entire year, he posted an ERA / FIP of 3.82 & 3.86, across 150.2 IP, and posted a K/9 of 11.11 with a 29.4% K Rate. The one primary down for Paxton, or two, was that his BB/9 increased by nearly an entire point from ’18-’19, as it rose from 2.36 to 3.29. The other is that his HR/9 has been continuing to rise ever since 2017, as it sat at 1.37 this past year — in ’17 it was 0.60. Now those numbers led to his 3.5 fWAR, which was a tick below his 3.7 from the season prior, but if one were to look at the seasonal splits and the numbers behind them, there are more things to see that lay under the surface.

For starters, Paxton threw his cutter far more this year than he had any year of his entire career (20.1% of the time, compared to his previous career-high usage of 15.7% back in ’16). Add to that the fact he threw both his fastball and his curveball – in my opinion, his best pitch – less this year as well. His fastball usage % was sub 60% for the first time in his career, just barely at 59.9% & as for his curve, it was down from the two seasons prior — 21.3% in ’17 & 21.5% in ’18 — to just 18.8%. However, as the season went on, Paxton began throwing his curveball more and started to throw the cutter a bit less. What’s interesting about that, is when looking at his splits across the entire season, it shows that when he did begin to find that confidence and throw his disgusting curveball more, the numbers backed it up.

Paxton’s First & Second Half comparison

The table below is a comparison of Paxton’s first and second half numbers (info via Fangraphs):

HALF IP K/9 BB/9 ERA GB/FB Ratio Soft Hit %
First 76.1 11.20 3.54 4.01 1.03 14.3%
Second 74.1 11.02 3.03 3.63 0.79 20.3%

Now, let it be known that Paxton also had an injury bugged and inconsistent June & July, thus leading to ERA’s of 7.15 and 5.68 in those months. However, as the table shows above, the second half for Paxton was far more consistent and better across the board – I will say, his FIP in the first half was better at 3.65 to a 4.09 one the second half. However, I attribute that more to the fact that Paxton gave up more HR’s in the second half (1.57 to 1.18). Not to mention that in the second half, his WHIP came back down to the expected levels, as the 1.43 first half WHIP was very out of the ordinary for Big Maple, and that number dropped down to 1.13 for the second half. What that says to me is that as Paxton got more comfortable in the Bronx and threw his curveball more than he had beginning the season, gradually increasing as the months went on, the results came along with it. Another crazy stat is that opposing hitters’ OPS in the first half of 2019 vs. Paxton was .753, and that number dropped in the second half to .686. If ANY starting pitcher in the league can hold hitters to an OPS sub .700, that to me is great– just for reference and to let Yankees fans know just how amazing Gerrit Cole is, Cole’s second half OPSA with Houston was .513 last year.

Expectations for 2020

For Paxton, he has the stuff to be elite, and that is without question. To me, the Yankees rotation consisting of Gerrit Cole, Luis Severino, James Paxton, Masahiro Tanaka, and a fifth man to be named later, should compete for the top in all of baseball. I view it as if the team has three true aces, in Cole, Sevy, and Paxton. Should Paxton pitch more like he did in the second half, and pair it with that first half FIP – FIP considers the defense behind you, batted balls in play, as well as other various factors – he can very quickly return to form. However, even if Paxton were to replicate this last year, again next season virtually, that’s a 3.5 fWAR value pitcher in the middle of the rotation — his 3.5 fWAR across 150.2 IP was 0.1 higher than Aaron Nola, who threw 202.1 innings.

I believe that James Paxton has settled into his role in New York, and hopefully, he can put together a fully healthy and consistent season as well. If he can use his Curveball more efficiently and often – as he did in August and September mainly, and cut back on the HR’s, there is no reason that he cannot be one of the best pitchers in the American League. The hope is that he can pitch 160.0 IP this season, and hopefully go deeper into his outings than he had in 2019 (AVG of 5.2 IP per outing, down from 5.7 in ’18 & 5.67 in ’17) then that would go a long way for both he, and the Yankees bullpen as well. Look for Big Maple to re-channel his inner self and have a stellar 2020.