John Harper, SNY.tv | Twitter |
While predicting greatness for James Paxton in the Bronx, John Smoltz offered high praise that Yankee fans actually might find insulting on Wednesday.
Paxton failed to get out of the fifth inning against the Astros on Wednesday night in Houston, in what was his first big start for his new team. And Smoltz' comments came hours before the lefty gave up five runs in 4.1 innings, as the Astros completed a three-game sweep of the Yankees.
On MLB Network, Smoltz not only said he was picking Paxton to win the AL Cy Young Award this season, but he made a rather stunning declaration:
"He's Andy Pettitte times five."
Smoltz later explained that he was talking in terms of pure stuff, but it's still quite a reach to essentially call Paxton the better pitcher, considering the former Mariner has had an injury-plagued career and, at age 30, has yet to pitch in a postseason game.
Pettitte, meanwhile, is a borderline Hall of Famer who was often at his best in the postseason, delivering many clutch October performances as part of five championship teams, including a memorable 1-0 win over Smoltz and the Braves in a pivotal Game 5 of the 1996 World Series.
For that matter, Pettitte's 19 postseason wins are the most by any pitcher in baseball history.
And while Paxton has had stretches of brilliance during his seven seasons in the big leagues, the first six in Seattle, it remains to be seen if he can pitch on the big stage in New York, and with huge expectations for the first time in his career.
Indeed, the Yankees traded Justus Sheffield for him because they expect Paxton to be a difference-maker, a potential Game 1 starter in October, which is a point Smoltz also made on Wednesday.
"I think when they picked up Paxton," Smoltz said, "the Yankees went to the next level."
However, the big lefty didn't look the part in Houston, on a night the Yankees desperately needed a strong start after they'd gone deep into their bullpen while losing the first two games of the series.
Paxton had a history of pitching well against the Astros, going 4-0 against them last season with a 2.05 ERA, but he struggled from the start on this night. He gave up a couple of monster home runs to Jose Altuve, but more problematically, he couldn't put Astros hitters away even with two strikes, and wound up throwing 95 pitches in his outing.
It doesn't mean he won't eventually be that difference-maker for the Yankees, or that Smoltz won't wind up being right about Paxton.
After all, as Mets' fans know, Smoltz was way ahead of the curve in predicting that Jacob deGrom would blossom into a star, after calling his debut start in 2014 for MLB Network. More than once over the years, Smoltz said he expected deGrom to win a Cy Young Award, and certainly many baseball people believe Paxton has that kind of potential.
Still…"Pettitte times five?"
Al Leiter challenged Smoltz on the show about the comment, but the Hall of Famer didn't backpedal.
"The mechanics are almost the same," Smoltz said. "But Paxton's stuff is that much better than Pettitte. And Pettitte was a great competitor who obviously dominated in the postseason.
"I'm just talking about: that cutter turns a little more, the fastball has more miles per hour, the curveball has similar break. And I really like his makeup.
"But, of course, Pettitte stayed healthy. Paxton's gotta show baseball he can stay healthy. And (if he does) you're going to see numbers that are going to shock a lot of people."
When I spoke to Leiter by phone later in the day, he admitted to being surprised by Smoltz's comparison to Pettitte, but he also said he sees great potential as well in Paxton.
"Year in and year out he has Cy Young-type stuff," Leiter said. "I watch him on tape and sometimes I say, 'how do people hit him?'
"But you go through all the injuries, and it's like, ok,he hasn't been able to stay healthy. But when you just rate him purely on his stuff, he's got that cutter, oh by the way he throws 95- 98. Then when he's got that good tilt on his off-speed curveball, forget it."
In any case, Smoltz's high praise added a bit of intrigue to Paxton's start against the Astros, but the big lefty failed to deliver. The Astros' lineup can be tough on any starter, so it's way too early to say Paxton wasn't up to the moment.
But he now has a 6.00 ERA after three starts, and whatever his future as a Yankee, "Pettitte times five" is an awfully high bar for Paxton to clear. One that he surely doesn't need hanging over him.