Will 2018 be the season James Paxton reaches the elusive 200-inning threshold and develop into the ace he's shown the potential to be?
PEORIA, Ariz. — Got milk?
For James Paxton, his answer would be, “Well, that depends on where it comes from.”
In his personal quest to pitch an entire season without time spent on the disabled list, reach the elusive goal of 200 innings pitched and being the top-of-the-rotation ace his potential suggests, the Mariners’ Paxton has continued to refine and adjust his offseason and spring training program. The latest aspect of that is a reduction of lactose in his diet.
Following a breakout 2017 season in which he went 12-5 with a 2.98 ERA in 24 starts, Paxton decided to supplement his offseason preparation in search for better durability. He underwent myriad tests, including having blood samples drawn, to determine if changes to his lifestyle, specifically his diet, could lead to improved performance and injury avoidance. Without getting into every single detail, Paxton mentioned one noticeable change made because of the tests.
“What the tests showed for me was that cow’s milk wasn’t great for my system,” he said. “It kind of caused inflammation for me.”
So, in this case, milk doesn’t do Paxton’s body good.
“It’s all about limiting the amount of inflammation your body experiences after starts and in between them,” he said. “If I can just find more of those little things that can add up to me staying healthy, that’s the goal. That’s one of the things I’m going to be paying attention to and try to limit or completely eliminate from my diet.”
Out with the dairy milk and in with almond milk.
“It’s not too bad, actually,” he said.
But here’s the amusing side note to this change. Paxton’s wife, Katie Jo, is from Wisconsin and the couple built their permanent home in Eau Claire.
So, no dairy in dairy country?
“It’s tough to do,” he said. “I just try to limit it in most meals. It’s hard to keep it out completely. I just try to do the best I can and limit the amount.”
Admittedly, his in-laws give him a sideways look about the situation.
“It was a little awkward at first,” he said.
And what does manager Scott Servais, who is a native of La Crosse, Wis., think of this?
“You’re setting me up right now,” Servais said with a smile. “My dad’s in the dairy industry! Come on, that’s a set up.”
Family and state allegiances aside, Servais understood and respected Paxton’s dietary decisions. It’s part of the changing science in the game. Players have more information, technology and innovation than ever before. Why wouldn’t they use it to better themselves?
“Look at all the top, premier athletes in any sport and what they’re doing, what Tom Brady is doing,” Servais said. “I heard Aaron Rodgers coming out and saying he wants to play just as long as Brady does and is going to do anything he can to do it. These guys are smart. They look at this stuff. What are these athletes doing? How is he still performing at age 40? I’m sure Pax would love to be pitching when he’s 40. If this can somehow extend the window, why not?”
And the not eating of cheese in Wisconsin?
“It takes discipline,” Servais said. “I go back to Wisconsin, I eat cheese curds, let’s be honest. But it does take a lot of discipline, knowing where you’re at. He doesn’t have kids yet, either. It may change for him.”
Paxton said he doesn’t feel invincible because he suddenly gave up cow’s milk and other dairy products.
“I feel good,” he said. “It’s really hard to nail down what that did for me. I imagine if I went back to drinking milk a lot, I’d probably tell the difference. Right now, I’m feeling good. I think it might be part of it. But I can’t really tell.”
But the dietary changes this offseason were just part of the progression for Paxton. He also implemented a program from Muscle Activation Techniques, which “assesses and corrects muscular imbalances, joint instability, and limitations in range of motion.” It’s something he heard about from Hisashi Iwakuma.
“It’s tough,” he said. “I think it’s really helped.”
In years past, he’s trimmed off weight with better cardio and intensified offseason workouts. He added bikram yoga keep the weight off and become more flexible. The MAT workouts have added a little muscle, giving him a more athletic look.
“With this game and your body, it’s a constant process of searching for what works best for you,” he said. “Some guys are lucky and find it right away, what works best for them. But I’ve been going about this thing, trying to learn as much as I can and being open to trying new things and trying to find a process, a program that works best for me that keeps me healthy.”
It’s not just about working harder, but working smarter and more efficiently on the things that can make a difference. With sports science and performance development becoming increasingly popular, Paxton tries to take in as much of the information available and digest it for his personal use.
“There’s all kind of stuff out there,” he said. “Different thoughts on things for pitchers and players and what you need to do. I think everyone has their own ideas. I try to sift through things and try the stuff I want to try. I’m going to continue to try and learn and incorporate things that could possibly help me.”
Yes, 2017 was a bit of a revelation for Paxton in terms of performance on the field, but those two disabled-list stints for a forearm strain and pectoral strain still linger as frustrations in his mind.
“I feel like I took step forward as far as my process and my results,” he said. “I think I had the best results of my career last season. Now if I can just stay on the field and do what I did, I think I will have a pretty good season. I feel like I did take a step forward as far as pitching goes and I did throw more innings than I did the year before, but I’m looking to get closer to that 200-innings range that’s the goal for this year — don’t miss any starts and get to the 200-inning benchmark.”
That’s the reason for the evolving offseason plans. It’s constant preparation to reach those goals. If he does, he can elevate himself to one of the elite pitchers in baseball.
“I feel like I’m ready to make that step,” he said. “I’ve put in a lot of time and effort. Hopefully, I’ve put in enough work to get there.”
There are more than a few fans and opposing scouts who doubt Paxton will get there. For as much as they are excited by his obvious talent and infatuated by periods of dominance, they still consider him an injury and disabled list appearance waiting to happen. They won’t allow themselves to believe.
“I get it,” he said. “People are free to their opinions. I have gotten hurt quite a bit so it’s fine for them to say that. I obviously can’t let that bother me.”
Over his big-league career, he’s dealt with a lat strain, shoulder inflammation, a strained finger tendon, a torn fingernail, a bruised bicep, forearm tightness and the pectoral strain. Some are fluky, others are frustrating. It’s why he continues to be open to new ways to forego such problems, even if it means no more grilled-cheese sandwiches.
“What am I going to do, go sit in a corner and cry about people telling me I’m going to get hurt?” Paxton said. “That doesn’t help me at all. So I’m going to go out and try to do everything I can to get better and find a way to stay healthy. And let those people nay say me to motivate me. And go out there show them they’re wrong.”