Yankees owe an explanation for giving up on James Paxton

James Paxton #65 of the New York Yankees in action against the Boston Red Sox at Yankee Stadium on August 15, 2020 in New York City. New York Yankees defeated the Boston Red Sox 11-5. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
James Paxton #65 of the New York Yankees in action against the Boston Red Sox at Yankee Stadium on August 15, 2020 in New York City. New York Yankees defeated the Boston Red Sox 11-5. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images) /
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James Paxton #65 of the New York Yankees in action against the Boston Red Sox at Yankee Stadium on August 15, 2020 in New York City. New York Yankees defeated the Boston Red Sox 11-5. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images) /

No one, including myself, expects the Yankees to pursue James Paxton.

The team took its sweet time in bringing back superstar D.J. LeMahieu, and failed to re-sign the beloved Masahiro Tanaka (despite Tanaka’s clear commitment to returning to New York).

Tanaka proved a durable player, avoiding substantial injuries in six of his seven seasons. If a healthy Yankee of seven years was not going to be re-signed, then what chance did an injury-prone Yankee of two years have?

Yanks Go Yard recently reported on a presentation by Yankee Insider Bob Klapisch. While admittedly our source was a third party’s account of Klapisch’s reporting, I was nonetheless troubled. The Yankees, according to the session, were not interested in Paxton because they didn’t trust his injury history.

Why did this comment feel incomplete? Because, when the Yankees acquired Paxton in 2018, he was already known to be “injury prone.” I’ve heard it said that seven is a magic number, but were the 1 ⅓ seasons Paxton spent with New York really that more revelatory than the previous five?

Baseball has always been a game of numbers. Fans like to speak with precision and back up their claims with evidence. If all the Yankees are willing to imply about Paxton is that he’s injury prone, then that’s a disservice to that tradition.

Paxton’s injuries began in 2014. He played in only 13 games in 2014 and 2015 respectively (a pitcher who appears once every five games will make 32.4 starts over the course of a season). The 2015 injury then kept him off the baseball field until June of 2016.

But Paxton stayed healthy for the remainder of 2016 (well, he spent a stint on the 10-day DL, but that was due to a ball being lined off of his elbow). Injuries struck Paxton again in 2017 and 2018, but they didn’t come down as hard; Big Maple pitched 24 and 28 games in those seasons respectively.

2019 with the Yankees perhaps marked a slight step back, as Paxton pitched 10 fewer innings than he had the year before (150.2 vs 160.1). But he still managed to make more starts, 29, than he ever had before.

2020 marked a major step back. But it was also a COVID-shortened season. Who knows what Paxton could have done had the season started on time? A May 23 article from ESPN quotes Paxton as saying he had fully recovered from his offseason surgery. Had he started pitching in June instead of August, who knows what kind of difference it would have made to his frustrating year? Perhaps the constant adjusting of his rehab timeline by MLB and MLBPA’s negotiations did him in.

“Injury prone” players can spend vastly different amounts of time on the field. As such, they can contribute vastly different on-field results. A great example of this is Aaron Judge.

While Judge has missed 142 games over the past three seasons, his talent is so immense that it almost doesn’t matter. His respective FanGraphs WAR over those years has been 5.1, 4.6 and 0.9 (that last one is from the shortened 2020 season). Injuries may have kept him from being Mike Trout, but he’s still in solid All-Star territory.

Between 2016 and 2019, meanwhile, James Paxton’s average FanGraphs WAR was 3.8. His Baseball Reference WAR was a more modest 2.5. Either way, Paxton has shown that even in injury-plagued years, he can put up a decent amount of value. His injuries may have slammed a lid on his ability to achieve personal milestones, but they don’t necessarily make him useless from a team-building perspective.

Yankee management undoubtedly has access to savvy scouts and skilled data analysts. If James Paxton’s 2020 injuries are truly indicative of bad news to come, the Yankees are more likely than anyone else to know. But if there is something specific they know, they aren’t telling us.

Perhaps there’s an unwritten code of honor where teams do not reveal the damning injury information. They feel it’s not their place to deprive a former player from the possibility of finding employment elsewhere.

But if the Yankees lack such noble motives, it’s not right for them to pass on Paxton while offering such limited comment. It’s not fair to fans to have an ownership that’s willing to experiment with players like Paxton or Jameson Taillon, but isn’t candid about the complexities of their experiments’ results. It’s also not fair to Paxton for his employers to dismiss him as injury-prone when the story of his career seems to be a bit more nuanced.

For many Yankee fans, James Paxton will be remembered briefly as that guy who struggled and then got hurt in 2020. From a strictly academic standpoint, that’s not a fair assessment. The Yankees are under no obligation to go after Paxton, but for the sake of the game, they should really strive to make that farewell a little less silent.