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James Paxton to the Yankees!

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Breaking down the first major trade of the offseason

Oakland Athletics v Seattle Mariners Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

There are 300 million maples in the state of New York. Now that number is 300,000,001. The Yankees acquired left-handed pitcher James Paxton from the Mariners for three prospects, including Justus Sheffield.

Paxton, born in British Columbia and known as “The Big Maple,” has been one of the better pitchers in baseball over the last few seasons. He carries a 3.13 career FIP (77 FIP-) and struck out 32.2 percent of batters faced in 2018.

Over the past two years, his 8.4 fWAR is 13th best in baseball among pitchers, and no one in the top 25 threw fewer innings. Equalized for 150 innings, Paxton would have been the sixth best pitcher in baseball in 2017-18.

2017-18 fWAR/150 IP

Name IP WAR (2017-18) WAR/150 IP
Name IP WAR (2017-18) WAR/150 IP
Chris Sale 372.1 14.2 5.7
Max Scherzer 421.1 13.4 4.8
Jacob deGrom 418.1 13.0 4.7
Corey Kluber 418.2 12.9 4.6
Luis Severino 384.2 11.4 4.5
James Paxton 296.1 8.4 4.3

Of course, innings are always the problem for Paxton. He started 28 games and threw 160 13 frames last year— both of which are career highs. He spent time on the disabled list in every full season of his career for back, forearm, pectoral, and other injuries. The Yankees training staff is now tasked with keeping him upright and on the mound as much as possible over the next two seasons. He becomes a free agent following 2020.

Paxton throws three pitches: fastball, curveball, and cutter. (He pretty much scrapped his changeup.) He relied on the heater 63.6 percent of the time, averaging 95.4 miles per hour. In spite of his overall success driven by a high whiff rate, he does get hit hard. His 9.4 percent barrel rate, 89.4 MPH average exit velocity, and 42.1 percent hard hit rate were all among the worst in baseball.

When he gets squared up by opponents, it’s usually on the fastball. This makes him and especially interesting acquisition for the Yankees. His new team is well known for calling more breaking pitches and fewer fastballs. Here’s how opposing hitters performed against each of Paxton’s pitches last year:

Opposing batters vs. Paxton’s pitches

Pitch wOBA xwOBA
Pitch wOBA xwOBA
Fastball 0.326 0.330
Curveball 0.274 0.261
Cutter 0.181 0.171

We can’t assume he’ll throw the fastball less and breaking balls more just because he put on a new uniform, but we do know this is the pitching philosophy the Yankees profess. Perhaps bringing his fastball usage down a few percentage points could help him take the next step towards becoming an ace.

Leading the return for the Mariners is Justus Sheffield. He’s a left-handed pitcher like Paxton, and he debuted in the majors at the end of the regular season. MLB Pipeline currently ranks him the #31 overall prospect and #4 left-hander in all of baseball. He features three above average pitches: fastball, slider and changeup. He put up the minor league numbers to back up the hype— 2.87 RA9 with 123 strikouts in 116 innings against mostly triple-A competition in 2018. There’s every reason to expect him to spend most of 2019 in the Seattle rotation.

Outfielder Dom Thompson-Williams and right-hander Erik Swanson also head to the Seattle organization in the deal. Thompson-Williams wasn’t listed anywhere near the Yankee top prospect lists before the season, but he turned heads by hitting .293/.363/.546 with 22 home runs and 20 steals in A-ball. Swanson reached triple-A this year and generates lots of strikeouts. He profiles as a back-end starter or useful bullpen piece in the majors.

Overall, the return is a little underwhelming for Seattle. If your definition of an “ace” is one of the top 30 pitchers in baseball, you probably include Paxton in that category. With two years of team control remaining, he should have fetched two significant contributors in return. Sheffield is probably one, though his peak likely won’t reach that of Paxton’s. Thompson-Williams is a lottery ticket and Swanson is a role player.

This deal could set precedent for trade value around the league this winter. If so, it’s probably a good sign for buyers and not so much for sellers.


Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. In addition to BtBS, he writes at www.OffTheBenchBaseball.com. Tweets @depstein1983