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What’s behind the early season struggles for James Paxton and JA Happ?

Last week I wrote about how good Masahiro Tanaka has been and his next start was by far his worst of the year. So in the name of a good old-fashion reverse jinx, today I’m going to write about the early season slumps of James Paxton and J.A. Happ. With the two slated to take the mound against the Red Sox in this week’s series, now is prime time for these two veterans to identify the issue and return to their usual dominant form.

Taking a quick glance at these two pitcher’s stat lines paints a bleak picture. Paxton and Happ have ERAs of 6.00 and 8.76 respectively, with 4.41 and 6.47 FIPs to accompany them. Both have been torched by the long ball with HR/9 rates of 1.80 and 2.92, miles greater than their career averages. But beyond these baseline concerns, their early mishaps have come in very different forms. Let’s take a closer look at each pitcher to break down what is plaguing them in the early going.

James Paxton

For Paxton, the biggest issue so far has been a complete inability to fool hitters. His O-Swing% is currently at an abysmal 25.6%, nearly five full points below his career average. The attendant results have been exactly what you would expect, with a sky high walk rate of 3.60 BB/9 and high pitch counts driving him out of games early. Moreover, hitters are clearly able to lay off his chase pitches and barrel up deliveries in the zone, with a career high 38.1% Hard% and a 91.0 mph average exit velocity.

What does the underlying data say about what might be causing this inability to fool batters? For one thing, Paxton himself — with the assistance of Carlos Beltran — believes he tipped his pitches in his disastrous April 10 start against the Astros.

“They knew what was coming, so they were fouling off some pretty good pitches,” said Paxton. “I think we found something to remedy that so I’m not giving away any pitches, so that’ll help.”

But beyond tipping pitches, Paxton has used his curveball far less so far this year than he traditionally has in the past. So far, just 14.7% of his pitches have been curveballs, his only offspeed offering. Taking it’s place has been a higher usage of the cutter at 19.1%, a career high. His fastball use has also ticked upwards since last year, a surprise given the Yankees much discussed anti-fastball philosophy.

This all points to a needed shift in Paxton’s approach for his next couple outings. His career worst GB% at 35.7% and xwOBA of .329 are further evidence that something needs to actively change for his next start. If I were Larry Rothschild, my suggestion would unsurprisingly be to increase the usage of his high quality curveball. Throughout his career, Paxton has induced swings and misses and kept hitters guessing with his sweeping breaking ball. By using it less, hitters appear to be sitting on his hard stuff and having an easier time taking pitches out of the zone.

There is some evidence that his early struggles have come in part due to bad luck. His current .436 BABIP against is sky high, and suggests some balls simply aren’t bouncing his way through three starts. But there is clearly also an element of his own struggles incorporated into this number, as evidenced by his high Hard% and xwOBA as well as his very low GB%.

Paxton has clearly demonstrated throughout the past couple years that he has ace-like potential. The Yankees need to start seeing that soon, and it starts with mixing up his pitches better and showing better command of the zone to keep hitters off balance and generate more swings and misses.

J.A. Happ

Whoof. Where to begin with Happ, whose first three starts have all come against subpar competition and have all been absolutely terrible? When a player gets off to a start as bad as he has, there are usually clear indicators in the data as to why the pitcher is struggling. Interestingly, in this case, many of the usual places you’d go to give little to no indication of what’s going wrong.

His O-Swing% and Z-Contact% are sitting around his career averages, suggesting he’s doing at least a decent job of keeping hitters off balance at the plate. His Hard% is actually better than his career average thus far, and he’s not giving up significantly more fly balls than he traditionally has in the past. His strikeout and walk rates aren’t spectacular, but they’re also not terrible and not particularly far from past performances.

The only clear outlier in the data is his abysmal 2.92 HR/9 rate, which is more than 1.5 more HR/9 than his career average. Unfortunately, home runs have the potential to sink any starter, and they have very much done so thus far for Happ. Take a look at this “grooved pitch” graph courtesy of Brooks Baseball. For reference, a grooved pitch is defined as a pitch located middle-middle regardless of movement or velocity.

Nearly 10% of all of his fastballs have been grooved thus far this season. Not great! Fastballs middle-middle just don’t play in today’s league, especially when your average velocity is only is only about 91.6 mph. This is borne out in the Statcast data as well, where Happ is found to be surrendering a Barrel% of roughly 9.5%. If one out of every ten hitters is generating literally the best contact you can as an offensive player, you’re probably going to have a bad time regardless of how well you handle those other nine guys.

There is reason to be hopeful with Happ, given that most of his underlying stats are solid and it’s almost exclusively been the long ball destroying otherwise solid work. But the early season results are concerning, especially given his struggles with the long ball after coming over to the Yankees from Toronto last year. With his current stuff, it is clear Happ needs to work closer to the periphery of the zone especially with his fastball to have success this year.

Final Thoughts

Both of these guys are competitors and have proven their ability to be highly successful starters in this league. But while it’s only a small sample size, they clearly have work to do to return to their typical form and give the Yankees the type of production they need in the absence of staff ace Luis Severino.

For Paxton, he needs to become more consistent and confident in his curveball so that his plus fastball can play up as a knockout pitch as it has throughout his career. Without doing so, guys can continue to wait him out, drive up his pitch count, and choose pitches they can drive to reduce his effectiveness.

In Happ’s case, he simply has to do a better job of keeping his fastball down in the zone and limiting damage on home runs. If he continues to be plagued by the long ball, it will be frustrating for the fans and detrimental to the team’s success this year.

Both of these guys have an entire season to correct these issues, and there’s no time like the present. Here’s to hoping that the Yankees analytics team has identified these issues and they both turn in a string of quality starts beginning with their outings against the Red Sox.

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