James Paxton
ESNY Graphic, AP Photo

New York Yankees starter James Paxton hasn’t been consistent since returning from the injured list and there is a simple answer as to why.

Would the real James Paxton please stand up?

It’s the absolute least he could do. After all, the New York Yankees gave up a significant prospect in Justus Sheffield to acquire him from the Seattle Mariners last offseason. Even though New York had ace Luis Severino around, Paxton was expected to form a viable 1-2 punch with him.

Well, folks, fate had other ideas this season. Severino has yet to pitch in a game due to ongoing shoulder trouble. Paxton, meanwhile, has been consistently inconsistent since missing a month with left knee inflammation.

It’s truly frustrating. This is the same man who threw a no-hitter last year. He owns a 1.89 career ERA against the hated Boston Red Sox. He even threw eight shutout innings against them back in April.

Now, Paxton is 5-5 with a 4.20 ERA and hasn’t notched a win since June 21. He has a 5.06 ERA since returning from his injury.

Something is clearly ailing James Paxton, but what?

Where’s the ace?

Pitching in New York, especially Yankee Stadium, requires an adjustment from everyone. It’s loud, the fans are rowdy and, most important of all, they demand great results. Mad Max himself would probably have an easier time driving on Fury Road than he would pitching at the House That Ruth Built.

Now, to be clear, Yankee Stadium is NOT Paxton’s bug-a-boo. He isn’t Sonny Gray 2.0. In fact, Paxton has a 3.75 ERA at home this year compared to a mark of 4.78 on the road. Whatever his issue is, it probably isn’t Yankee Stadium.

And, of course, fans are justifiably frustrated. Paxton was 11-6 with a 3.76 ERA for the Seattle Mariners last season and also posted a 1.10 WHIP. In 2017, he was 12-5 with an incredible 2.98 ERA and 1.10 WHIP again.

Fast forward to today, and James Paxton looks like anything but a frontline starter. On top of being 5-5 with a 4.20 ERA, his WHIP is way too high at 1.47.

The man might have been an ace in Seattle but in New York, those numbers simply won’t fly.

What’s the problem?

Fortunately, the deeper numbers provide an answer as to what may be ailing James Paxton. The problem is actually fairly easy to diagnose.

Per Fangraphs, Paxton is having some issues with walks. His BB/9 for his career stands at 2.74 and he only had 2.36 in 2018. As a first-year Yankee, however, Paxton’s BB/9 currently stands at 3.68.

Now, let’s talk about Paxton’s pitching style. He is primarily a fastball pitcher and has thrown it 64.5% of the time this year. His velocity isn’t down, but he did struggle with control of his fastball against the Colorado Rockies this past Sunday. Given his .361 BABIP and his hard contact allowed standing at 37.1%, up from 34% last year, it can be argued fastball control is indeed the issue.

But wait, there’s more! Paxton’s secondary pitches, a cutter and a knuckle-curve which can be devastating, are being used differently. He threw the cutter 14.3% of the time in 2018 and the curveball 21.5% of the time.

This approach seemed to work, but Paxton has changed something this year. He has thrown his cutter 21.1% of the time in 2019, the most he has ever thrown it in his career. His curveball, meanwhile, has been used a career-low 14% of the time.

What does it mean?

Though Paxton missed a month with a knee injury and got the all-clear to return, something isn’t right. He himself even admitted he wasn’t feeling 100% when he came back. Pitching with a knee brace on his land leg may complicate things as well.

But when push comes to shove, the knee can’t take all of the blame. For some reason or another, James Paxton is throwing his cutter more often. Maybe it’s something the Yankees’ analytics team wants. Perhaps he’s using it more because his knuckle-curve isn’t as sharp as he’d like. Either way, it’s a puzzling shift and Paxton should consider reversing the usage if it means pitching better.

Final thoughts

It isn’t time to panic over James Paxton yet, but it may be soon. The dog days of August are just days away and fatigue will set in. The Yankees should be able to trust Paxton to step up in big moments, especially before the playoffs. Would any of you devoted readers trust him with the ball in a big game right now? I’m not sure I would.

Maybe the knee is more injured than initially reported and affecting Paxton’s control. Perhaps Paxton needs to change his approach on the mound.

One way or another, something has to change soon with October looming.

James Paxton is not a simple Sonny Gray sequel. Now, he just has to pitch like it.

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Josh Benjamin has been a staff writer at ESNY since 2018. He has had opinions about everything, especially the Yankees and Knicks. He co-hosts the “Bleacher Creatures” podcast and is always looking for new pieces of sports history to uncover, usually with a Yankee Tavern chicken parm sub in hand.