During Fox’s broadcast of the London Series on Saturday — after both teams staggered out of the wreckage of that ridiculous first inning — announcers Joe Buck and John Smoltz were discussing possible deadline acquisitions for the Bombers. It’s no secret that the team could use an elite starter, especially when compared to the Houston Astros, a likely opponent come October.
Smoltz made an interesting point. Maybe the Yanks don’t need to pursue an aging not-an-ace-anymore (Madison Bumgarner) or another bit player. Maybe they just need to figure out how to get a little more from James Paxton, and boy that got my mind working.
Paxton, acquired last winter, has been very James Paxton-y in New York. What’s that mean? He misses a lot of bats (27.6 percent strikeout rate), allows too many free passes (9.9 percent walk rate, up 3.5 percent from last season) and leaves the yard a bit too much for comfort (13.5 percent HR/FB). He’s basically just been the same Paxton with a little variation, and while that is a useful and important part of the rotation, it isn’t quite an ace.
Can Paxton be more?
The tricky thing with evaluating pitchers is keeping track of each moving part. Pitching is a dreadfully complicated kinetic movement; so many pieces are involved, all of them important in their own way. Something as small as a slight tweak to the way the pitcher loads from the glove or the angle of his leg kick can reap tremendous rewards or disastrous consequences.
Paxton demonstrated this in April. A mechanical tweak — remember how he tipped his pitches against those aforementioned Astros? — helped him dominate the Boston Red Sox in a thrilling 12-punchout performance. The dichotomy was striking; the Astros pounded him and the Red Sox got pounded by him.
Paxton is capable of overpowering hitters with his upper-90s fastball and twisting them into knots with his cutter and curveball. The stuff isn’t the issue; dude threw a no-hitter and also struck out 16 in a start last season. In this exercise that’s important because it sets his ceiling: excellence. He’s capable of contending for Cy Youngs, but when evaluating him a glaring flaw becomes clear: walks.
Free passes cause so many problems. They extend innings, tire out pitchers and force them to reveal more of their repertoire. Walks put pressure on the defense, too, and watching a pitcher struggle with command has an effect on everyone. Oh, and in an era where homers are increasingly plentiful, walks are gasoline looking for a match.
This to me is Paxton’s clear and present concern. Yes, his ability to miss bats helps, but strikeouts are a bandaid. Great pitchers just don’t walk this many batters. Among starters with at least 50 innings pitched, Paxton has the 17th worst walk rate, among such luminaries as Trevor Richards and Chris Archer and Jhoulys Chacin. (Fun fact: Reds starter Luis Castillo has the second-worst. Castillo has been floated as a potential trade chip — why I do not know, as Cincy has zero reason to move him — but moving that walk rate into the AL East feels like a Jeff Weaver-level disaster.)
Can Paxton fix his walk problem?
Hard to say, but he can at least clean it up. He didn’t walk nearly this many batters in Seattle, and with his stuff — it always comes back to what the guy can throw — the potential is always there. Consider someone like Charlie Morton, who bumbled around Pittsburgh as an OK starter before Houston — there’s that city again! — helped tweak his approach and delivery. If Morton was a Yankee, he’d be unquestionably the team’s ace right now. Paxton can be even better than Morton, and the first step is making life easier on himself.