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Yankees lefthander James Paxton struggles in the first inning . . . again

Yankees pitching coach Larry Rothschild talks to starting

Yankees pitching coach Larry Rothschild talks to starting pitcher James Paxton during a game against the Cleveland Indians at Yankee Stadium on Saturday, Aug. 17, 2019. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

One of the biggest mysteries of the Yankees’ season came to the forefront again on Saturday: James Paxton struggled yet again in the first inning.

In what has been an ongoing theme, he allowed a pair of runs in the opening frame before settling down in the second. Paxton allowed two more runs in the fifth inning in the Yankees’ 6-5 win, striking out four and allowing six hits and three walks.

“I’ve been trying to find a way through it all year,” said Paxton, who has an ERA of 11.05 in first innings and a 2.96 ERA in all other innings. Coming into Saturday, only the White Sox’s Dylan Covey had a worse first-inning ERA (15.58) among pitchers with at least 10 starts.

“For some reason, it just keeps on happening and I’ll continue to do everything I can do to mitigate that,” he said.

On Saturday, Paxton (9-6, 4.53 ERA) issued a leadoff walk to Francisco Lindor before allowing a double by Oscar Mercado and a two-run single up the middle by Carlos Santana. Yasiel Puig walked before Paxton induced a pop-up and got two strikeouts to end the frame.

He then retired 10 of the next 11 batters he faced (and picked off Puig, the only batter to record a hit) before running into trouble again in the fifth. With two outs and no one on base, Lindor doubled and Santana and Puig added RBI singles.

“In the first inning, I struggled a little bit, trying to [throw] my breaking ball for strikes,” Paxton said. “After that, I feel like I threw the ball well. In the fifth inning, things just didn’t go my way … but overall, I felt good with my effort. Obviously, I’m not happy with the result, but I’m ready to get back to work and keep on going.”

During Paxton's first six major-league seasons in Seattle, his first-inning ERA (4.01) still was worse than his overall mark of 3.42, but the same could be said for big-league pitchers as a group, who posted a 4.49 ERA in the first inning in this span (the frame is typically the highest-scoring one in a season, given that three of the opponents’ best hitters are guaranteed to come to the plate).

Things have been considerably worse this season, but manager Aaron Boone said he thinks much of the problem has been bad fortune.

“The first inning [process] hasn’t been nearly like the results have been,” he said. “I feel like he truly has been a little bit unlucky in the first inning. Today he struggled [and] it took him a handful of hitters to get settled, but today was a little more atypical than what we’ve seen.”

Paxton’s strikeout rate is actually higher in the first inning than his overall mark, and while his walk rate is higher (4.5 per nine innings versus 3.5), most of his problems stem from damage on contact. Both batting average on balls in play (Paxton has a mark of .354 in the first) and home run rate (4.5 per nine innings) are not predictive for pitchers in small samples and tend to regress to the mean in the long run.

Said Paxton: “I’m going after it with everything I got. It seems to be that things are getting through [and] things aren’t going my way in the first inning for some reason. I’m sticking with my process.”


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