There have been bumps along the way, but James Paxton has shown flashes of ace-like stuff.
The premise isn’t new.
It’s something the Mariners and their fans have hoped/believed each offseason over the last three years. The possibility and potential of James Paxton has dangled in front of them seemingly within their grasp. There was so much that the big left-hander could be if it all came together.
Of course, that pitcher Paxton was supposed to become has never quite came within reach for a myriad of reasons, notably a frustrating level of inconsistency due to a run of injuries.
Similar to years past, the Mariners find themselves going into a season hoping and expecting Paxton will make the push toward consistency and sustained success at the big league level.
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With three starters on staff over age 30, who’ve had heavy workloads in years past, Paxton represents the future for Seattle. Armed with a fastball that sits from 97-99 mph and devastating offspeed pitches, he has the best stuff on the staff — something that isn’t new. The Mariners are relying on him to put it all together. For the organization to snap a 15-year postseason drought in 2017, Paxton knows he must be something more than he’s been in past seasons — a pitcher that matches his potential.
“Personally for me, I feel like this is my season to take off,” he said. “I was able to get to a place last year that I feel like I’ve been trying to find for a long time. I feel like I’ve got that.”
Finding that place didn’t happen immediately for Paxton.
He pitched his way out of the competition for the No. 5 spot in the rotation last spring, losing out to Nathan Karns. Paxton’s velocity sat in the low 90s, his breaking pitches lacked life and movement and his command was wandering.
“Spring training was tough,” he said. “I didn’t feel like myself out there. I was in a bad place. And you guys all saw it. It was ugly.”
Paxton started the season in Class AAA Tacoma with meandering success. But it was there that pitching coach Lance Painter, who had worked with him at the Class AA level, noticed an issue with the left-hander’s arm slot.
It was too high.
The elevated arm slot was unnatural and sapping his velocity and movement. To show the proper angle, Painter put Paxton on the field, hit him a groundball and had him throw it to first base. The angle of Paxton’s arm was lower and more conventional on the throw. Painter hit more groundballs and Paxton continued to throw to first, feeling where the proper, natural arm slot should be. He then took that to the mound.
“It was amazing how fast it happened once we figured out what I needed to do,” he said. “There was one start where I was 90-91 and then we made the adjustment and the next game I was sitting 95-96. It was just an immediate thing for me. Then finding that consistency with that delivery, I felt like I just got better and better.”
It was a change so simple that Paxton only regrets not recognizing it sooner.
“It was such a small thing that I feel like I should have noticed myself,” he said. “But when you are in it, it’s hard to make that adjustment. But I was thankful that he was able to tell me that and we were able to move forward with it and make that adjustment. “
But the changes weren’t just physical. Paxton got shelled in his first big league outing in 2016, filling in for an injured Felix Hernandez against the Padres. But after giving up eight runs (three earned) on 10 hits in 3 2/3 innings, it was apparent he needed to make a change in his mindset and preparation. After handful of starts, he realized he had to start “thinking like a power pitcher.”
It didn’t lead to a complete and overwhelming success, but over his next 19 starts, Paxton posted a 6-6 record with a 3.68 ERA. In 117 1/3 innings, he struck out 110 batters and walked just 23.
And during that span, he dealt with a severely bruised throwing arm after taking a line drive off it in his finest performance of the season, and also more issues with the broken nail on the middle finger of his pitching hand.
“He dominated the strike zone last year,” general manager Jerry Dipoto said. “He throws the ball over the plate. That wasn’t always his strength so we saw real changes. The velocity uptick, the consistency in his secondary stuff, a cutter that became just a knockout pitch for him. We had teams come through here, multiple teams, general managers sharing with me that James Paxton was as good stuff-wise as anyone they’d seen all year including teams that were still playing in October. He really showed us that he has the physical ability, like he has shown before to pitch near the top of the rotation.”
After being an afterthought in spring, he was the team’s best pitcher at the end of the season. Paxton would have been the starter if the Mariners had made the wild card game or played in a play-in game for the wild card.
“A totally different guy, there’s no doubt,” manager Scott Servais said. “Not just mechanically and some of the adjustments he made on the mound. Obviously the stuff is what it is — it’s really, really good. But it’s how he’s carrying himself, the confidence. He believes he’s a major league winning pitcher instead of just a major league pitcher. There’s a difference. He expects to go out there every night and go deep in the game to win the ballgame for us. You really saw that emerge and come out of his personality which was maybe a little bit different in spring training and early in the year.”
Paxton is trying to build off that for 2017. It’s why he has eschewed pitching for Canada in the World Baseball Classic after initially agreeing to do be a part of the team.
“I talked with my agent and also people with the Mariners and the advice I was getting was that it wasn’t a good time for me to take on those extra innings that early,” he said. “I got married this offseason so my training program got pushed back just a little bit and I didn’t want to sacrifice getting ready for the Mariners’ season by shortening that to get ready for the WBC.”
After pitching 171 2/3 combined innings between Tacoma and Seattle — the highest total for a season in his career — Paxton wants to push to that 200-inning level, a threshold for top starters.
“I want to take a jump in innings this year, a significant one,” he said. “And I want to save those for the Mariners season.”
At age 28 and having made 50 starts over four seasons in the big leagues, Paxton knows it’s time to go from potential to proven. That transition could be the key to the Mariners’ success in 2017.
“I’m ready to be who I want to be,” he said, “and be who I think everyone thinks I can be.”