James Paxton knows all about the oft-used spring training cliché of a player "being in the best shape of their career." But that's how he feels and he's ready to compete.
PEORIA, Ariz. — It began as a legitimate reference in stories, then became a cliché and has blossomed into a full-on, mocking meme on social media.
Baseball writers usually should avoid typing the phrase “best shape of his life” into a story on any player at spring training. It’s a story line that has been regurgitated far too many times.
But there is a Mariners candidate for that overused plot this spring — James Paxton. The left-hander has reported to camp, and he looks like a different pitcher. Paxton has shed more than 20 pounds off his frame — much of it in his midsection.
“I’m right between 218 to 220 right now,” he said. “It feels like a pretty good fighting weight.”
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Even Paxton knows the joke behind “best shape of his life,” and chuckles a little when it is mentioned.
“I feel like I probably am,” he said. “I was probably about the same weight when I came in back in 2012 or 2013, but I definitely wasn’t this strong. So I feel like I am in the best of shape of my life.”
Paxton might have deadpanned that last sentence with a wry smile, but he still meant it. And he knew it needed to happen.
“I think I may have gotten a little bit heavy there, being injured,” he said. “It was just kind of a conscious thing to feel and look better and (be) more athletic. So we added in some more things into my workouts — some more-explosive movements to jack up my heart rate through interval stuff. It just helped a lot.”
There is some fear when pitchers lose a large amount of weight, that it will affect their velocity and stamina by weakening their legs. Paxton doesn’t feel that way.
“I definitely still feel strong,” he said. “I don’t feel like I’ve gotten any weaker. I think that’d be hard to do with amount of lifting and training I’ve done this season. My body feels really good. “
Teammates have done double takes upon seeing him. Impressed with his transformation, they offer congratulatory comments as only baseball players can.
“Guys that know me from last year,” he said. “They notice right away. They tell me that I look great and in good shape. They say I almost look skinny.”
With pitchers and catchers reporting for official physicals Friday, Paxton was one of several pitchers to throw a bullpen session before being checked out. He threw roughly 35 pitches in his fourth bullpen session this offseason.
“It went really good,” he said. “No problems at all. Body is feeling good. Arm is feeling good. I’m ready for camp to start.”
With his unique delivery that features him reaching high in the air with his glove hand and right arm and a long motion home with his left arm out and his body tilted back, it was apparent how different Paxton’s body looks in a baseball uniform.
“It feels easier going through my delivery,” he said. “I’m not moving around as much weight. It’s definitely easier on my legs and knees and joints. I mostly notice it doing agility work and moving around. I think it makes a big difference for me getting off the mound and fielding my position. Getting to first base to cover is going to make it that much easier.”
During Paxton’s bullpen session, he had a lot of interaction with Rich Dorman, the pitching coach for Class A Clinton. Paxton has a good rapport with Dorman, who understands the lefty’s mechanics and delivery.
“We’ve worked on a lot of stuff,” Paxton said. “I had him in the minor leagues. And he was the Mariners’ pitching coach in the fall league, so we worked together on my changeup and my high fastball and my release point. We really worked on everything coming out of the same arm slot and same window. I’ve just continued to work on that stuff. That’s the stuff we’ve been talking about, and I’m continuing to get better and more consistent with it.”
A year ago, Paxton was limited in his first weeks of camp after injuring his wrist in a fall just days before the report day. This spring he’s healthy. There are no issues with the troublesome middle finger on his throwing hand — he strained a tendon during a game last year and later tore the fingernail.
“I’m more than happy to never have to talk about my finger again,” he said.
Paxton made just 13 starts last season, missing three and half of months of the season and going 3-4 with a 3.90 ERA. In 2014, Paxton also made just 13 starts, missing a significant time because of a lat strain and shoulder tendinitis. He was 5-4 with a 3.04 ERA.
He needs to be healthy, because unlike last season he isn’t guaranteed a spot in the starting rotation. The Mariners acquired Nathan Karns to provide rotation depth. Paxton and Karns will battle it out of the last spot in the rotation. It’s a different situation, but he isn’t afraid of the competition.
“I think you are always competing,” he said. “You have to get yourself ready and do what you have to do. You can’t worry about what they’re doing because that’s just expended energy that should be using to take care of yourself. So I’m not going to worry about what anyone else is doing, take care of myself, get myself ready and let those guys make the decision when the time comes.”