Seattle Mariners

In quest to be among the best, Mariners pitcher James Paxton is willing to sacrifice. Even milkshakes

James Paxton discusses final Mariners spring start before what could be breakout 2018

James Paxton made one last spring start before he embarks on what could be a dominant 2018 season based on the progress he made in 2017. Says he feels ready to go, plus talks about the Mariners rotation.
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James Paxton made one last spring start before he embarks on what could be a dominant 2018 season based on the progress he made in 2017. Says he feels ready to go, plus talks about the Mariners rotation.

James Paxton’s offseason home is in Wisconsin – where cheese, milk and other dairy products abound.

But he did some offseason blood testing in his effort to exterminate injuries from his life, like something out of a Tom Brady book.

“I found cows’ milk wasn’t good for me,” Paxton said. “I didn’t know that before, so I’ve stayed away.”

No ice cream? No milkshakes?

How does he survive?

“I have cashew milk ice cream,” he laughed. “And maybe some almond milkshakes. You should give it a try. It tastes pretty much the same – it’s just not cows’ milk.”

Whatever it takes. Because this season, the big lefty wants to be considered among the best in baseball. That’s all his coaches could talk about this spring.

Mariners manager Scott Servais gave a two-word answer when asked about the next step in Paxton’s career.

“All-Star,” he said.

Mariners pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre Jr. echoed that.

“He can put a team on his shoulders and carry them off to the promised land,” Stottlemyre said. “He’s that type of guy.”

Then he tossed around a few names in Chris Sale, Clayton Kershaw and Corey Kluber. And he said the last pitcher he’s worked with like Paxton was Randy Johnson, during Stottlemyre’s time with the Diamondbacks.

“Paxton, his stuff is in that class,” Stottlemyre said. “He just needs to stay healthy and put together a year and he’ll be in that elite group. He’ll be known as one of the top pitchers in baseball.

“I compare him to those guys because that’s the type of stuff that you’re talking about. Those are the top, elite pitchers and those are guys everybody looks up to. James Paxton will be on that list for me and for us. He just has to go out and put up the innings. As soon as he does, the wins and all that are going to come with it and he will carry that status of elite pitcher just like Felix Hernandez did.”

Key word: healthy.

Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto has called Paxton’s problems “acute” injuries. And just like you and me, Paxton says he doesn’t know what that means, either.

But what he was probably extrapolating is that Paxton’s never had any sort of surgery-requiring strains or breaks.

And he hasn’t endured the same injury twice – from finger injuries, torn nails, blisters, bruised forearms, a pectoral strain, forearms strain, a contusion in his left elbow. And you know it was getting weird when he strained his left latissimus dorsi muscle.

“I haven’t had anything really structural, knock on wood,” Paxton said. “Nothing really serious like in the shoulder or elbow. A minor thing in my forearm but it’s wasn’t UCL. Just very odd injuries and the good thing is none of them have reoccurred. None. I’ve learned how to not have that injury occur again.

“So hopefully I’ve checked off some boxes and don’t have to worry about them anymore.”

maple grove

So that’s why he had the blood work done and why he doesn’t have 2-percent milk and cereal for breakfast.

But he also spent time at ATI in Bellevue, heading there three days a week for muscle activation techniques and workout programs. He started doing that last season after a strained left forearm landed him on the disabled list on May 5.

He returned by May 31 and had a slow June, but a historical July – going 6-0 in six starts with just six runs allowed in 39 1/3 innings (1.37 ERA). Batters hit .182 against him and he stuck out 46.

“It was just to make sure all of my muscles were firing properly,” Paxton said. “I was going through all the stuff with them to make sure all my muscles were working and checking to make sure I didn’t have any muscles torn, or any muscles were shutting down.”

The result is that health word.

“My body feels really good and strong,” he said, his eyes narrowing to focus. “I’ve been recovering from starts really well this spring. I feel like I’ve been recovering better than I ever have from spring training starts and I think I’ve found a routine that works for me between starts.”

Combine that with a 2017 when he was by most metrics among the best in baseball aside from innings pitched. Fangraphs lists him as having the 10th-best wins-above-replacement among all MLB starters last year (4.6), finishing 12-5 with a 2.98 ERA and 10.3 strikeouts per nine innings.

Catcher Mike Marjama got to see that when he came to Seattle near the end of the season.

“Oh my gosh, he’s unbelievable,” Marjama said. “Especially in a leadership role. We’ve seen him do his thing now and I’m really excited for him.”

Few have questioned Paxton’s “stuff” – his arsenal of pitches that includes a 96-mph fastball, 90-mph cutter (that can play like a slider, he says), and an 82-mph curveball. Those three pitches are all above-average MLB pitches, Stottlemyre said, and he throws a decent changeup, too.

Paxton paused for a few seconds when asked what he most learned about himself last year.

“I think the biggest thing I learned was how to go out and compete without my best stuff sometimes,” he said. “Sometimes I wouldn’t have my curveball early in the game or I wouldn’t have my cutter or fastball location. I had to find ways to compete and keep our team in games and try to go deep into games. And I really worked hard with Mel on that.”

And think about this – Stottlemyre said he’s only seen a few occasions when Paxton has put all that together.

“He hasn’t always been healthy, so he’s had to go out and learn to pitch without all his weapons,” Stottlemyre said. “There’s only been a few times I’ve seen him go out where he’s got the curveball, the cutter/slider, the glove-side fastball, the arm-side running fastball and the occasional changeup all going for him. So if you don’t have all your weapons, what do you have and how can we make those the most effective and still give your team a chance to win?”

And that’s led to fewer compounding innings. Paxton’s greatest area of growth is in his game management.

“That’s one we talk about all the time – between the lines, when (stuff) hits the fan and you have runners at second and third and nobody out, now he has the ability to turn the dial up and punch tickets,” Stottlemyre said. “When he was younger Paxton, he didn’t know where to go. He didn’t know what pitches to go to and how to slow the game down. He’s there now.”

The Canadian-born “Big Maple” earned himself a Maple Grove following at Safeco Field. There was question whether he might even supplant Hernandez as the Mariners’ starter on Opening Day.

That’s a long way from 2016, when he was optioned to Triple-A Tacoma during spring training after battling Nathan Karns for the No. 5 spot in the starting rotation.

Daren Brown was his manager in Tacoma in 2013 when Paxton, a fourth-round draft pick by the Mariners in 2010, made his Triple-A debut. The issue, Brown said, was getting consistent strikes and velocity with Paxton’s big, over-the-top delivery, and not getting to 90 pitches by the fourth inning.

“Anytime you got a guy who is touching 98 (mph) there is always that in the back of your mind that you could move him to the bullpen,” said Brown, who now manages Double-A Arkansas. “And then he could get to the big leagues real quick.

“But when you got a guy who is 95-97 in the first inning and then by the fifth inning he’s still 95-97 and going a little better than that – you know you got a guy who can maintain the velocity. We saw all the stuff, it was a matter of him being able to repeat everything and get in the strike zone.”

paxton throws

Paxton’s last experience in the bullpen was as a freshman at the University of Kentucky, when he said just about every pitcher on staff threw harder than he did.

But as he grew – he said he added 35 pounds – he added velocity. His fastball jumped from 92-93 mph to touching 98.

And then added control after working with Lance Painter, who was his Double-A coach and was promoted to the Triple-A level after Paxton was sent back down from Seattle. Painter got Paxton to lower his arm slot, allowing him to more easily repeat his delivery, which means better location.

“It’s really easy to say, ‘Let’s put him in the bullpen,’” Brown said. “But I really think we stayed with him to try to fix some things and get him to throw strikes and now you got a big, strong guy who ought to be able to go out and do what he does for six or seven innings every time out.”

Servais said Paxton is much more interested in the analytics of pitching than others and what he can apply, whether it’s in game-planning, mechanics or how his pitches are tunneling, which is a popular new-age concept on getting different pitches to fly down similar trajectories (or tunnel) long enough to look identical to each other.

“He’s a No. 1 starter,” Servais said. “Guys like Sale, Kershaw and Kluber are top-of-the-rotation guys and the best in the game and what they do is take the ball and be very durable. That’s been the one thing that has held Paxton back to this point is his durability and staying out there and making 30-32 starts. The stuff is there, the development of his pitches and the development that he’s had mentally and how he approaches and attacks hitters – that’s all there. It’s just staying healthy.”

Stottlemyre laments about that.

“That’s it! I’m telling you,” Stottlemyre said, his eyes widened. “You look at what he was doing last year, winning six games in July – he was on his way. And then he got hurt. He’ll always continue to learn about himself and harness his stuff. He’s a very deep thinker and he internalizes everything and thinks about it and wants to know why.

“He’s matured and he’s really learning exactly what he’s capable of doing.”

But, now, is he capable of health?

“I guess we’ll find out,” he said.

TJ Cotterill: 253-597-8677, @tjcotterill