When the New York Yankees acquired James Paxton over the offseason, there was some reason to believe his best days were ahead of him. Paxton had already authored a number of quality seasons -- he entered 2019 with a career 117 ERA+ in 102 starts -- but the Yankees, through a mix of analytics and coaching, often seem to get more from their talent. Paxton hasn't quite delivered in that regard -- though his 112 ERA+ would rank second among his full-season efforts -- yet he appears to have found a worthwhile formula that could bode well for October.
Paxton has upped his curveball usage in a noticeable way over the last month-plus. In fact, he's thrown at least 25 curves in five of his last seven starts. Why is that worth noting? Because prior to those seven starts, he'd thrown 20 or more curves in a game once all year. It's a small sample, but in two September appearances Paxton has recorded the highest single-month curveball usage of his career, according to Brooks Baseball.
Catcher Austin Romine discussed Paxton's pitch-selection tweak after Monday's game, in which Paxton held the Boston Red Sox scoreless through 5 2/3 innings and struck out seven. Here's what Romine said, per MLB.com.
"He's got a purpose when he's pitching. He's fun to catch," Romine said. "He stays aggressive. When he mixes in his curveballs and sliders, he kind of keeps guys off-balance. He's known predominantly as a fastball guy, so guys are selling out. That splits the plate up a little bit and guys can't guess as easily."
It's unclear who or what spurred Paxton to throw his curveball more often, but the numbers bear out that it's a wise choice -- and we don't just mean the 2.51 ERA and .543 OPS against him in those last seven outings.
While Paxton's breaking ball has been his third most-used pitch, per Statcast, opponents have hit just .163 against it. For comparative purposes, batters have hit .270 against his fastball and .261 versus his cutter. Those numbers aren't a one-year mirage, either. For his career, opponents have a .183 average against the curve, versus .206 against his cutter and .254 versus his four-seamer, according to Brooks Baseball.
Obviously the game-calling aspect is more complicated than just glancing at those numbers, but Paxton's success with his curveball makes sense. As Romine noted, the curve keeps batters honest -- especially those sitting on a fastball. In addition to the change of pace, Paxton's curve is thrown with a spike grip, making it a potent chase offering. (To wit, opponents have whiffed on nearly 40 percent of their swings taken against it.) And, so long as he doesn't hang the pitch, it's likely to end up down or below the zone -- areas where there's little chance of being burned.
Paxton wouldn't be the first lefty to ride the interplay between a fastball, cutter, and curveball to great success. Both Jon Lester and David Price -- no strangers to the American League East -- have dominated the competition by mixing and matching those offerings.
We'll have to see if Paxton can follow suit. For now, though, it looks like he might be developing into the souped-up version of himself that many thought he could entering the year -- and at the perfect time for a Yankees rotation that could dictate if the club plays deep into October.