James Paxton Struggles in Regular Season Debut; Should Yankees Fans Be Concerned About His Health?

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Moments after James Paxton took the mound Saturday night in Washington D.C., there was reason to believe the left-hander was back to full strength.

Paxton made quick work of Nationals' leadoff man Trea Turner, getting ahead quickly before sending the shortstop back to Washington's dugout with a wipeout breaking ball.

Considering the Yankees' left-hander had underwent lower back surgery in February, and wouldn't have been ready for an Opening Day in March that wasn't pushed back by COVID-19, a four-pitch punch out featuring perfect execution in his first at-bat on the rubber couldn't be more encouraging. 

It didn't take long for that excitement regarding New York's No. 2 starter, however, to transform into frustration and concern. Paxton made it through the first frame unscathed, but was unable to record an out in the second as five consecutive batters reached before manager Aaron Boone pulled the plug on his regular-season debut. 

"I didn't feel great, I didn't really have a good fastball and didn't have a breaking ball to put guys away with," Paxton said. "I was able to get to two strikes on some guys but just didn't make pitches to put them away just not a good night for me."

An early indicator that Paxton hadn't completely moved on from his microscopic lumbar discectomy was what showed up on the radar gun throughout his 41-pitch outing.

Last season, Paxton averaged 95.4 mph on his fastball. In fact, his four seamer has never averaged below 94.9 mph in a single season across his seven years in the big leagues, per Statcast's data. On Saturday night, the southpaw's fastball (thrown 22 times) averaged just 92.4 mph. He topped off at 93.8 mph but also threw two four seamers slower than 91.

"I'm not alarmed. I feel like physically he is sound," Boone said on Paxton's velocity being down. "I think it's just a matter of really getting his delivery and finding that click where he's really extending through the ball. That's that's kind of what he's been searching for here these last few weeks."

Paxton confirmed that his decrease in fastball velocity, even if it's only by a few ticks, is something that's been consistent since his surgery in early-February. That said, it's not necessarily a correlation to any sort of setback — building up is just a part of Paxton's recovery.

"I think it'll come in time," Paxton said. "But it's definitely something that I want to address, and look at going forward."

Paxton started the bottom of the second serving up three consecutive singles to load the bases. A double into the left-field corner from outfielder Victor Robles — who finished a triple shy of the cycle on Saturday — brought home two Nationals. After walking Michael A. Taylor, Boone pulled the plug, making a call to the bullpen.

Even the outs Paxton recorded in the first frame were loud. Five pitches after surrendering a triple off the bat of second baseman Starlin Castro, Paxton got out of the frame on a sharp line drive tracked down by Aaron Hicks in center field. 

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"I thought in the first inning he was really good with his cutter and his curveball — he threw some really good ones — and then everything just kind of started to flatten out by the end of that inning," Boone explained. "A line out to end the inning and then it just seemed to really flatten out the entire second inning and they had a lot of good looks on him."

His final line in his 2020 debut is jarring — and his performance dug the Yankees into a hole too deep to climb out of in a 9-2 loss — but Paxton is ready to move forward. He said he'll watch film on Sunday to check out his mechanics while continuing to build up across the board.

"I'm not happy with it's not how I want to start the season," he admitted. "That being said, but this one behind me and focus on what's next."

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