The 2019 New York Yankees are awesome. They have a potent, deep offense that slams elite hurlers and junkballers alike with a healthy flair for the dramatic. They have a bullpen full of wizards (Adam Ottavino) and dragons (Aroldis Chapman) that can shut down any rally, at any time. The Yanks are rightfully considered among the elite in baseball, alongside the Los Angeles Dodgers and Houston Astros.
The Yankees are good.
The Yankees are flawed.
Both can be true at the same time. Yes, the Bombers score at will and tend to own the late innings, but starting pitching is a true concern. We’re grading on a curve here, mind you — the Yanks aren’t competing with the Marlins and the Orioles, but rather with the aforementioned Dodgers and Astros — but the facts are the facts. The Yankees starters have the 13th best xFIP in baseball. Is it bad? No. Is it as good as you might hope for considering the offense and bullpen? No.
The Yankees starters aren’t bad. They just aren’t great, but the frustrating thing is the potential therein, in particular with James Paxton. Paxton is a particular obsession of mine, a high-velocity lefty with a great curve. I was excited when Brian Cashman acquired him this offseason and although his debut in the Bronx hasn’t been foolproof, he’s certainly filled a hole in a rotation devoid of its ace, Luis Severino.
That said, given Paxton’s stuff, it’s easy to want more. He’s thrown 120 innings, struck out 152, walked 44 and has a 101 ERA+. Solid. Fine. Not great. (For context’s sake, last season he produced 108 ERA+.)
It stands to reason that if the Yankees are going to win the World Championship, Paxton has to be better. He can be. August is proof. This month, through five starts — in which Paxton has steadily thrown fewer fastballs and more knuckle-curves — Paxton has a 3.56 ERA, 35 strikeouts and 9 walks in 30 innings. He dominated the Dodgers last Friday night, punching out 11 in 6.2 innings. That’s more like it.
Against LA, Paxton leaned heavily on the curve, throwing it 35 times (fastball: 50 times). He struck out six with it and used his cutter to work both sides of the plate. As Paxton noted to The Athletic’s Lindsey Adler, if he can keep the curveball at the knees or lower and convince hitters to reach for it, his fastball plays better up in the zone. Paxton has the velocity of a Gerrit Cole but not the swing-and-miss spin; he has to pitch backward, in a sense, to make his fastball stronger.
When he does that — like he did against the Dodgers — Paxton can be tremendous. Dominating the Dodgers on the road is a heck of a postseason test, and there are more to come. The Yanks, barring some bizarre collapse, will play in October. They acquired Paxton for just that kind of moment, to stand alongside Severino and Masahiro Tanaka as the helm of a rotation with visions of a World Championship.
A Paxton locating his pitches, forcing swings out of the zone and challenging hitters with his fastball is a force to be reckoned with.