If He Remains Healthy, Yankees Starter James Paxton May Be in for a Huge Season

In another year where free agents are slow to sign, the trade market has been robust. Paul Goldschmidt, Carlos Santana, Edwin Encarnacion, Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp, Edwin Diaz, Robinson Cano and Jean Segura all changing addresses via trade. The move that kicked it all off, however, sent lefthander James Paxton to the Yankees for a package headlined by top prospect Justus Sheffield. Now in New York and coming off arguably the best season of his career, Paxton will be one of the most polarizing fantasy players during draft season.

Long a “if-he-could-just-stay-healthy” guy, Paxton finally removed the qualifier last year, making 28 starts and tossing 160 1/3 innings. He amassed a 3.76 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 3.02 xFIP and 208 strikeouts, and was one of eight pitchers with a strikeout rate north of 30%. We’re in the early stages of fantasy baseball draft prep, but Paxton is the 16th starting pitcher selected in a typical draft, sandwiched between Patrick Corbin and Stephen Strasburg. That exact spot may change over the next couple months, but fantasy owners will likely need to use a fourth- or fifth-round pick to secure Paxton’s services, and more than a few owners will be leaning on him as their top starter. If Paxton were coming off the board a couple of rounds later, the potential reward would obviously be worth taking on the clear risks. At this price, it’s a much harder value proposition to square, but we still believe it’s worth taking the plunge.

Let’s consider the factors working against Paxton. It’s concerning that Paxton’s healthiest season still included two trips to the DL, one for back inflammation and the other for a forearm contusion. The 28 starts and 160 1/3 innings Paxton racked up last season were both career highs. All pitchers are injury risks, but Paxton carries much higher than the baseline risk that comes with the territory. Pitchers like Mike Clevinger, Zack Greinke and Jameson Taillon are safer health bets than Paxton, and. taking him also means passing on hitters like Eugenio Suarez, George Springer and Gary Sanchez. There’s significant opportunity cost here, which makes Paxton’s injury history even more concerning than it would be otherwise.

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Second, Paxton is trading a plus-pitching environment in Seattle for a negative one in New York. T-Mobile Park ranked 26th in run-scoring park factors last year and played neutral from a home run perspective. Yankee Stadium, meanwhile, ranked sixth in run-scoring park factors, and boosted homers more than any other park in the league. Paxton has always been better at home than on the road, pitching to a 2.98 ERA and 1.12 WHIP in Seattle during his career, and a 3.87 ERA and 1.26 WHIP everywhere else. He won’t get to count on that cushy environment for about half his games any longer.

Still, Paxton showed more than enough last year to believe he can endure the change. He strikes out more than a batter per inning and smashed his previous career high in strikeout rate last year  by four percentage points. Whenever we see a leap that dramatic, we want to look for a substantive change that could be responsible for it. Did he add a new pitch? Did he change his pitch mix? Did he increase his velocity. In Paxton’s case, the answer to the second question is yes, and that made all the difference.

Paxton features a four-pitch repertoire, led by his four-seam fastball. He also throws a healthy amount of knuckle-curves and cutters, and mixes in smattering of changeups. Here are his usage rates for each pitch over the last two seasons. The first rate listed is from 2017, and the second one is from last year.

Pitch 2017 Usage% 2018 Usage%
Four-seam Fastball 65.5% 63.6%
Knuckle-curve 21.4% 21.5%
Cutter 10.7% 14.4%
Change 2.4% 0.4%

Check out the difference in Paxton’s cutter usage last year. He got more mileage out of the pitch, with the bump of 3.7 percentage points representing a 34.6% increase. But it was the cutter that served as Paxton’s best whiff pitch in 2017, registering a whiff rate of 20.6%. Last year, that jumped to 23.1%. That’s the sort of meaningful change we want to see in a case like this. Paxton’s cutter was always a great swing-and-miss offering, he threw it significantly more last year, and it only got better. This is a pitch with a track record that now has a larger profile in Paxton’s repertoire. The increased usage of an effective cutter is reason to believe that what was a career-high strikeout rate for Paxton last year can be his new normal.

Let’s take a look at a couple of Paxton’s cutters, one to a hitter from either side of the plate.

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The pitch’s shape is similar to that of a slider, but we know it’s a cutter because it has a tighter break, rather than the loopiness associated with most sliders. Taken on its own, the pitch isn’t particularly special. It’s a strong, effective pitch, but there are many other cutters in the majors like it. What makes Paxton’s cutter particularly nasty is how it works in conjunction with his knuckle-curve. Take a look.

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The interplay between Paxton’s cutter and knuckle-curve makes both pitches better because of how well they work off one another. They have a similar spin coming out of his hand, but the knuckle curve is about eight mph slower on average and has a much sharper break. According to Statcast, his average release point on his cutter is 6.05 feet vertically and 2.69 feet off the plate horizontally. The knuckle-curve’s average release point is 6.25 feet vertically and 2.41 feet horizontally. In other words, the batter sees virtually the same release point before seeing virtually the same spin coming out of his hand, even though the pitches become wildly different once they get into the hitting zone. With that in mind, it comes as little surprise that throwing more of both helped increase his strikeout and whiff rates to career-high levels.

Paxton faces a tough environment Yankee Stadium, and his health remains a question mark. What we saw from him last season, though, was not a mirage. Paxton can be counted among the league’s best strikeout artists, which makes him well worth the risk at his average draft position.

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