Three starts into the new season, prized offseason pickup James Paxton is sitting on a 6.00 ERA (4.41 FIP) in 15 innings. He’s allowed eleven runs and put 26 runners on base. Opponents are hitting .328/.388/.577 against him. That is capital-B Bad. It’s also three starts. Paxton has had one good start, one okay start, and one bad start. The start of his Yankees career has been uneven at best.
“One result or another is always attributed to (playing in New York) when the reality is, more often than not, it’s baseball,” Aaron Boone said yesterday regarding Paxton’s start to the season. “Results, especially early in the season, can sometimes be a little mixed and fleeting and in and out, and we attach a reason to it rather than the game’s tough, and guys get in and out of locked in.”
The Astros worked over Paxton in his most recent start, scoring five runs and putting eleven men on base in four innings plus two batters. He faced 21 batters and nine saw at least five pitches. The Astros swung and missed only eight times at Paxton’s 95 pitches and they fouled away 26 total pitches, including 14 with two strikes. Those 14 two-strike foul balls were the fifth most in his career. The Astros were on everything.
Yesterday Paxton revealed he was tipping his pitches in Houston. Specifically, there was a tell that allowed runners at second base to pick up his curveball, which they then relayed to the batter. Paxton said special assistant Carlos Beltran picked up on it and showed him the video when the team returned to New York. Generally speaking, pitchers don’t talk about tipping pitches until they correct it, so Paxton must believe he’s corrected it.
“I did find out I was tipping my pitches when there were guys at second base, so they knew what was coming,” Paxton said to Zach Braziller over the weekend. “They were fouling off some pretty good pitches, taking some pretty good pitches. There were stealing some signs. So that’s didn’t help … (They) could see if I was going soft or hard.”
Boone confirmed the Yankees suspected something was up during Paxton’s start — “We realized there was probably something going on from behind, that guys could potentially pick up with him here and there,” Boone said — but added this has not been an ongoing problem, and that Paxton’s issues in Houston went beyond tipping pitches. His stuff wasn’t crisp and his command was not good.
“I just don’t think he was real sharp in his last start,” Boone said. “Stuff wasn’t his electric stuff that we’ve seen at times, and just a little bit off with his command. Again, going back to a number of hitters that got to be really long counts for him, where he’s having a hard time putting away guys and part of that’s a credit to the Astros hitters, who made it tough on him. It really extended his outing and made him work really hard even when he was getting outs.”
Despite all the traffic on the bases, Paxton faced only five batters with a runner at second base during his start in Houston. Here’s what those five batters did:
- George Springer: Four-pitch 6-4-3 double play in the second.
- Yuli Gurriel: Six-pitch walk in the third.
- Tyler White: Nine-pitch strikeout in the third.
- Aledmys Diaz: Runner thrown out at second on second pitch of the at-bat to end the third.
- George Springer: Seven-pitch strikeout in the fourth.
Some long counts there, for sure, but if Paxton was truly tipping pitches to the runner at second base, it didn’t hurt a whole lot beyond the pitch count. Paxton faced five batters with a runner on second, one at-bat was cut short by baserunning buffoonery, and only one of the other four batters reached base. That’s all.
Paxton faced 17 batters without a runner at runner at second base Wednesday — there were quite a few first-and-third situations that avoided a runner at second — and ten of the 17 reached base. Ten of 17! Good gravy. That doesn’t mean tipping pitches to the runner at second wasn’t a problem that needed to be addressed, but focusing on the pitch-tipping is missing the forest for the trees. There was more going on in Houston.
Three starts into the season, the numbers on Paxton’s stuff are right where they were the last few years. There hasn’t been a decline in velocity or spin or swing-and-miss-ability. The numbers quick:
It’s reasonable to expect Paxton to add a little velocity as the weather warms up, so everything is right where it needs to be in mid-April, and that’s good. A sudden drop in spin rate or whiff rate would be worrisome. Paxton should maybe throw a few more curveballs going forward, though that’s an easy fix, and his curveball usage rate isn’t that much lower than usual. It could be back to normal quick.
Watching his last two starts, it seemed to me Paxton’s command was the biggest issue, not stuff and tipping pitches to the runner at second base. He fell behind in the count a little too often, was over the heart of the plate a little too often, and maybe a little too predictable as well. Paxton has always thrown a ton of fastballs because his fastball is so good. A few more curveballs and cutters to change the scouting report a bit wouldn’t be a terrible idea.
Tipping pitches to the runner at second base may have been an issue in Houston. It does not appear it was the problem, however, just given how few runners were actually at second base. This early in the season, everything gets magnified, and Paxton’s three starts have been uneven overall. As long as the stuff is fine and he’s healthy — as far as we know, both of those things are true — it’ll likely be only a matter of time until Paxton gets on track. Tipping pitches to the runner at second? That was only a small part of the problem in Houston.
“(Beltran) showed me some video (and said), ‘Look at these takes, look at these swings. They wouldn’t be making these swings or these takes if they didn’t know what was coming,’” Paxton said to Braziller. “That being said, I also didn’t throw the ball very well. I was over the middle of the plate too much, even when there were guys not on second base. So I need to be better as well.”