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Opinion: James Paxton is an ace

Take a look at these numbers:

Those are the career numbers of one James Paxton from his call-up in 2013 through the end of his final campaign in Seattle last season. Among starters with at least 550 innings in that timeframe, Big Maple ranks:

  • 8th in FIP
  • 13th in xFIP
  • 17th in SIERA
  • 14th in K-BB%
  • 22nd in ERA

I think it’s safe to say Paxton has been a top-20 pitcher since his arrival. Sure, he’s never topped 160.1 innings (2018) in any year since his MLB debut. But racking up innings just for the sake of eating up a workload isn’t the discussion here. When he’s been on the mound, he has been nothing short of phenomenal.

That’s why it made a ton of sense when Brian Cashman made an unforeseen splash in the offseason to acquire the Canadian native. Less than a month after the 2018 World Series ended, the Yankees shipped off a three-prospect package – prized pitching prospect Justus Sheffield, Erik Swanson and Dom Thompson-Williams – across the country for the rights to Paxton. Before we talk about the ace’s performance this year, let’s check in on the youngsters now in the Mariners organization:

  • Sheffield (23 years 0ld) – had a 6.87 ERA with a 7.18 FIP and 6.07 xFIP in 55.0 innings at Triple-A Tacoma before being demoted to Double-A Arkansas in June.
  • Swanson (25) – has a 7.47 ERA with a 6.70 FIP, 5.07 xFIP and 4.76 SIERA in 37.1 innings with the big league club. He’s been on and off the Tacoma shuttle all season long, posting a 5.55 ERA with a 5.65 FIP and 5.49 xFIP in 24.1 innings at Triple-A.
  • Thompson-Williams (24) – has played with Double-A Arkansas all season long, posting a .237/.306/.408 slash with a .317 wOBA (click for explanation) and a 95 wRC+.

It’s only been half a season, and prospects could break out at any given moment. But for the time being, I think it’s safe to say the Yankees have not missed any of these guys (no offense to said guys).

Now, let’s talk about Paxton’s 2019 campaign. For starters, he missed roughly four weeks with left knee inflammation. There is a very real belief that he pitched at less than 100 percent health for at least some of his starts this season, but for the purposes of this article, let’s take all his stats at face value for what they are.

Through 18 games started, Paxton has a:

  • 4.28 FIP
  • 3.85 xFIP
  • 3.88 SIERA
  • 20.8 K-BB%
  • 4.72 ERA (it was 3.94 this time last week, and that’s precisely why you shouldn’t use ERA to evaluate a pitcher. It’s too volatile)

Where do those numbers rank among the 102 starting pitchers with at least 80 innings pitched (Paxton has 89.2)?

  • 55th in FIP
  • 30th in xFIP
  • 23rd in SIERA
  • 19th in K-BB%
  • 82nd in ERA

It seems that Paxton is pitching significantly better than his ERA indicates. I know you probably don’t want to hear it, but it’s true. The Yankees’ ace isn’t actually pitching that poorly at all.

So what’s going on here? A number of things. The most obvious one is that Paxton is allowing more home runs than ever. As it stands right now (bloated by last game), he has an 18.3 HR/FB% (click for explanation). Basically, balls are leaving the park more than they have in years’ past. Paxton’s highest season HR/FB% is 14.4 (2018), and his career number entering 2019 was a tidy 10.4.

While concerning, home run rates are incredibly volatile year-to-year, and it’s actually precisely why xFIP was invented. FIP uses the amount of home runs a pitcher gives up into its calculation, while xFIP substitutes the real home run rate for the league-average rate.

On the season, Paxton has given up 17 home runs. Through his start on July 7, Paxton had allowed 10 home runs across 76.1 innings pitched. At that time, his HR/FB% was a neat 13.0. In the 13.1 innings since, he’s given up seven home runs, which gives him a HR/FB% of 43.8 in his last three starts. Yeah, we’re going to call this simply a small sample size and an unsustainably high rate of home runs allowed. That will correct over time.

The other problem hurting Paxton right now is luck (or lack thereof). Fans hate hearing it, but his biggest issue is a case of bad luck. Bloopers fall in for hits. Barreled balls hit a hundred miles per hour find the gloves of fielders. Over time, good (or bad) fortune evens out, and in the short term, it wreaks havoc on pitchers’ numbers. StatCast measures every ball put into play, and that allows us to see which players are being gypped, both at the plate and on the bump. So let’s take a look at Paxton’s expected stats:

  • Expected batting average: .238
  • Expected slugging percentage: .373
  • Expected wOBA: .308

Let’s compare that to Paxton’s actual stats:

  • Actual batting average: .282
  • Actual slugging percentage: .499
  • Actual wOBA: .358

Yes, you are reading those numbers correctly. His opposing batting average should be 42 points lower, his opposing slugging percentage should be 126 points lower, and his opposing wOBA should be 50 points lower.

So there you have it. Paxton has simply been incredibly unlucky. Take last night for example. Paxton surrendered four home runs, and Mookie Betts hit three himself.

  • Leadoff home run: xBA of .260
  • Third inning home run: xBA of .780
  • Fourth inning home run: xBA of .310

Giving up home runs is obviously bad, but it’s another example of Paxton being on the wrong end of bad luck. In any other park, the first and last home runs have a very good chance of being caught. But at Fenway Park, stuff like that happens.

Don’t take this as me sugarcoating Paxton’s performance. He hasn’t been very good, with his biggest issue being efficiency. He’s averaging less than five innings per start, and while some of those were affected by injury, it’s still not good.

This isn’t the James Paxton the Yankees thought they were acquiring. But I have great news for the organization and fans alike: this is not James Paxton, and he’s going to show the world how talented he truly is when he leads the team to a World Series victory. You can take that to the bank.

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