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James Paxton: bailed out by fastball command... and the dejuiced ball

A sparkling Game Five performance sends the series back to Minute Maid

MLB: ALCS-Houston Astros at New York Yankees Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

While not as dramatic as when Mike Mussina yelled at Joe Torre to leave him on the mound, it was still an exciting moment for the Yankee Stadium crowd when, with two outs in the sixth, starter James Paxton resisted manager Aaron Boone’s desire to take him out of the game by saying, “I’m good. Let’s go. Let’s f—ing go.”

In what would have been a game-changing moment in literally any regular season, Robinson Chirinos, with a runner on, hit one 373 feet:

If we do our dejuiced-ball-is-falling-four-feet-short rule, then this 100% would have been a home run in previous months. By Statcast, this ball had an xBA of .600.

That wouldn’t have lost the Yankees, still up by three runs, the game, but it certainly would have changed the narrative around what was still a stellar start for Paxton, who outdueled Justin Verlander to extend the series by one game. Verlander, on the other hand, wasn’t as lucky in the home run category, allowing a doinker off the right field foul pole for an Aaron Hicks three-run home run.

Take, for example, a quick look at his distribution of pitches in the zone when you compare Game Two, where he lasted just two and a third innings, with last night:

In Game Two, the tunneling was more vertical, where he was trying to make Astros hitters be fooled by his knuckle-curve. That was incredibly unsuccessful, as they merely took them and waited for fastballs in the middle of the plate.

Instead of throwing the fastball about half the time and keeping the ball down, he instead inverted his strategy, using the fastball a whopping two-thirds of the time, and keeping the ball up high, not allowing Astros hitters to square up on balls even if they did happen to make contact; and if they didn’t make contact, it were the called strikes he needed (and missed last time) to get deeper into counts in his favor. That last Chirinos flyout, remember, was a fastball that was hanging over the lower third.

That doesn’t mean Astros’ hitters were wholly unsuccessful; they had five batted balls of 95+ mph, but most were kept at lower launch angles or, as mentioned, kept in the ballpark fortuitously. If Paxton does get to pitch again this season, it will be an incredibly effective strategy to continue what he’s doing when he has the fastball command, but also still trying to mix it up slightly more so batters don’t just sit fastball. In this small sample, he caught Houston off-guard as they seemingly expected off-speed.

Because of the postponement of Game Four both teams will have to turn around in another city overnight, and it also happens to be a bullpen game. The Astros got pretty lucky that Verlander was able to last seven innings despite his horrid start, so they only had to burn a single inning of Brad Peacock, who is still likely available today, if not the starter (or after the Opener).

For the Yankees that leaves Chad Green, JA Happ, Ben Heller, and Luis Cessa, largely, to patch this thing together to force a Game Seven. It’s a tall order against a rested Astros bullpen that will largely feature Peacock, Jose Urquidy, and the rest of the back-end if need be, so the only real way this works out for New York is if they somehow win and burn their back-end at the same time, which seems improbable. Regardless, that would still leave the inevitable Luis Severino vs. Gerrit Cole face-off in Game Seven, one in which it would still be stacked in Houston’s favor.

While not impossible for the Yankees to come back, it still looks to be a Russian Roulette situation, statistically speaking, for the Astros to blow this. It would require a coin flip to go the Yankees’ way, and then an improbable win against a recently-unhittable ace. Again, a tough road for a team that has avoided capitalizing on opportunities sans the Hicks home run, but Paxton at least kicked the possibly inevitable can down the road just a day more, and provided fans with some hope that in a future year he can be relied upon again in a massive spot.