James Paxton leading Yankees rotation, one fastball at a time

James Paxton leads the Yankees with 51 strikeouts this season. (AP)

James Paxton leads the Yankees with 51 strikeouts this season. (AP)
It took him a few starts to find his bearings, but James Paxton has found a groove for the Yankees.
The southpaw came to New York via trade this offseason, and after a mediocre beginning in the Bronx, the tired trope of "can Paxton handle New York?" came out in full force.
Well, with his last few starts, there's no doubt that Paxton can handle wearing pinstripes. The Canadian lefty shut out the rival Red Sox at Yankee Stadium before handling the Royals and Giants with aplomb. He struck out 12 batters in consecutive games (Red Sox and Royals) and has struck out 32 compared to just four walks over those last three outings.
It's no coincidence this came after Yankees advisor Carlos Beltran alerted Paxton to his pitch tipping. Paxton had good numbers against the all-world Astros in previous seasons, but Houston got to him and took him out of his mid-April start early thanks in part to knowing what was coming. He also overcame some of his early issues with the help of a sports psychologist who has worked with the lefty since his Minor League days.
Paxton hasn't just faced the pressure of pitching for the most famous franchise in baseball; he's also been asked to be the club's ace. Now-Tampa Bay Rays analyst Jeff Sullivan wrote for FanGraphs in November that the Paxton acquisition gave the Yankees a second ace to go with Luis Severino. However, Severino is on the shelf until at least June, making Paxton the lone No. 1 in the Bronx for the time being.
So how has Paxton lived up to the hype? His overall numbers speak for themselves. He has a 3.38 ERA in 34 2/3 innings, allowing 30 hits and 10 walks while striking out 51. His walks are only a couple ticks higher than previous seasons while his strikeouts have ballooned.

Furthermore, Paxton's kept opponents in the ballpark with just three homers. That's good for just 0.78 per nine innings, an above-average rate after allowing a career-high 23 long balls a year ago. As a result, his 2.26 FIP is fourth in baseball through the first month-plus of the season.
Paxton has made all this happen with a dynamite fastball. He pounds hitters with four-seamers early and often, setting up his secondary offerings ... or just more fastballs. He throws the four-seamer nearly two-thirds of the time.
One can live off one pitch if they have the stuff and the command. Paxton has the whole package. Alhough the spin rate is near average, his four-seamer is tied for ninth-fastest among starters at 95.7 mph. With a 7.1 percent walk rate, he's 30 percent above average, according to FanGraphs.
Sporting the velocity and command necessary to have an elite fastball, the left-hander attacks hitters up in the zone. Paxton tends to go away against same-sided hitters and primarily up, while he's willing to go more in the zone against righties. However, he still keeps the ball high when facing right-handed batters and, along with his cutter, it's helped him produce a reverse-platoon split to begin the year.
Behind his fastball, he turns to his cutter and curveball as his primary secondary offerings. Paxton's adjustment this season has been to use the cutter more. The results have been positive as each offspeed offering has been strong in the early going. After attacking with the fastball, he's able to put away hitters with either more of the same or his secondary pitches.
With that repertoire, Paxton has put up elite strikeout numbers -- and not just this season. Since the start of 2018 , he's fourth in strikeout rate and fifth in strikeout-minus-walk rate. He's able to generate strikeouts by throwing in the zone while priding himself on getting ahead.

There are still questions about how Paxton can hold up over a full season. He threw a career-high 160 1/3 Major League innings last year. He's already more than a fifth of the way there. If Paxton can produce 160-180 innings and be ready for a potential postseason run, he's hitting expectations.
While his durability concerns are similar to other Yankees starters, his repertoire stands in contrast. Even Severino, who surpasses Paxton in average fastball velocity, uses his slider and changeup more often. Only J.A. Happ relies more upon his heater.
The Yankees, however, didn't acquire Paxton to emulate their other starters. His fastball separates him in a positive way and with the talent he adds to their roster, the Yankees certainly want Paxton to continue standing out.