It was late July when James Paxton was nearing his breaking point — as was the Yankees hierarchy. The towering left-hander, acquired from the Seattle Mariners last off-season, was supposed to be one of the starting rotation’s guardians, blessed with an oversize windup and a high-90s fastball that could overwhelm even elite hitters.
But in midsummer, nothing was going right for Paxton, whose record had sunk below .500. The murmuring in the stands at Yankee Stadium was turning to outright booing. The club decided to investigate: General Manager Brian Cashman asked the Yankees pitching coach Larry Rothschild if Paxton’s makeup might be the problem.
It was a question, not an indictment, although Cashman’s concern was understandable. The Yankees were less than a year removed from a failed experiment with Sonny Gray, having learned the hard way that not every talented pitcher can summon his best in front of 40,000 New Yorkers.
Like Paxton — who will take the mound for the Yankees in Game 1 of their American League division series against the Minnesota Twins on Friday — Gray, who had been acquired from the Oakland A’s, had a dynamite arsenal but seemed chronically miserable on the mound in 2018. After resettling with the Cincinnati Reds this season, Gray finished the year seventh in the National League with a 2.87 E.R.A. (down from 4.90 the previous year) and ranked fourth in opponents’ batting average (.197).
Had the Yankees made the same mistake with Paxton? Was the Canada native nicknamed Big Maple too soft for the high-pressure market? Cashman’s reconnaissance ultimately determined otherwise.
“I received assurances that Paxton’s toughness was not an issue,” Cashman said. “All the feedback I was getting said, ‘Don’t worry about his makeup.’”
The Yankees were forced to dig deeper until they finally found the fatal flaw in Paxton’s approach: He had become too reliant on his fastball. Ferocious as it was on the radar gun, Paxton’s four-seamer was still getting barreled up by hitters. From opening day through July, opponents were batting .313 with a .572 slugging percentage against the heat. July’s struggles were even more dismal, as opponents’ average rose to .387.
Paxton admitted he may have been pressing in his first summer in the Bronx, trying to prove his value purely through velocity. Still, the Yankees couldn’t afford to give up on him. They were still without last year’s ace Luis Severino, who was nursing an injured shoulder. C.C. Sabathia was deteriorating as he headed toward retirement. J.A. Happ was slumping and Masahiro Tanaka, although steady as usual, couldn’t be counted on to match Justin Verlander in a potential Game 7 setting in the postseason.
No, it had to be Paxton: He was the one the Yankees needed to resurrect before October. And so they sat down with him, armed with reams of advanced analytics and video to prove their point about his overuse of the fastball. And it was not Rothschild who delivered the message; the nudge came straight from the top.
Cashman was joined by Randy Levine, the Yankees’ president, and Tim Naehring, the team’s executive vice president of baseball operations. They gathered with Paxton to effectively tell him: You’ve tried it your way, now you’re going to do it our way.
Though Cashman said that “those kinds of conversations happen all the time,” it is rare that they originate at the executive level — or that the results are so pronounced. Simply by mixing in his curveball more often, Paxton finished the season like a fireball, winning his final 10 starts with a 2.25 E.R.A.
Among the masterpieces he crafted down the stretch was a 10-2 blowout of the Dodgers, who struck out 11 times against Paxton in six and two-thirds innings. Manager Dave Roberts was still talking about that performance weeks later when the Dodgers were at Citi Field against the Mets. “Believe me, that was legit,” he said of Paxton’s dominance.
The arc of Paxton’s curveball was so huge and its break so severe, Dodgers hitters were unable to adjust to the fastball when it came. Now, Paxton said, he has “complete confidence” in the curveball as he prepares for the Twins.
It will be a significant task, considering the Twins led the majors with 307 home runs and seem to have shed their traditional inferiority complex with the Yankees. The pressure on Paxton, who has never pitched in a postseason game, will be enormous on Friday. No one has forgotten the way Happ was battered in Game 1 of a division series last fall against the Boston Red Sox, and how the Yankees never truly recovered.
Boone, who also announced on Thursday that Sabathia would not be on the team’s A.L.D.S. roster, has said the Yankees are better insulated than in 2018, thanks to their strong bullpen. Still, it would be a severe psychological blow if Paxton were to suffer the same fate as Happ, who was knocked out by the Red Sox in just two innings, having allowed five runs.
The Yankees are sure the new-and-improved Paxton has passed every litmus test since August. The real verdict, however, is just around the corner.
“James has all the weapons to be great,” Boone said. “He’s done a good job settling into New York and being a Yankee. I have no reservations about him being able to flourish in this environment.”