By Shannon Drayer
James Paxton was a September surprise in 2013.
Yes, he was a member of the heralded "Big Three," but his star had lost a bit of its luster after the inconsistencies and command issues he showed at times in Double-A followed him to Triple-A. Some questioned his call-up, but Paxton put those questions to rest, surrendering just four earned runs in four games against four playoff contenders.
Mariners pitcher James Paxton's development has been helped along thanks to his studying of the arm motion of Dodgers ace and fellow southpaw Clayton Kershaw on his iPad. (AP)
His overall numbers in Tacoma would do little to tip off the success he would have in Seattle in September, but his recent numbers indicated there may have been a change. Perhaps the final piece of the Paxton puzzle had been found.
Ten years earlier he couldn't have dreamt he would find himself on the mound at Safeco Field Sept. 7. Ten years earlier he couldn't make the All-Star team in his home town of Ladner, British Columbia.
"All my friends were playing on the All-Star team, and I got cut," he remembered. "I wasn't good enough to make the All-Star team. That's when I made up my mind I wanted to play. I told my dad I wanted to hang out with my friends this summer, I want to get good."
His dad became his throwing partner and the two would go to the park behind the house every night that summer to throw.
"I would throw 150 pitches, 200 pitches to my dad," said Paxton. "Throw and throw, we would throw long toss, we would throw bullpens. We loved it. We would spend hours out there. The next season I got a little better and I made the All-Star team and from there it just took off."
It took off well enough for Paxton to earn a baseball scholarship to play at the University of Kentucky. The Paxton that reported to Lexington was nothing like the Paxton we see today, though. That Paxton was 3-4 inches shorter and 40 pounds lighter, and his fastball topped out at 88 mph on a good day.
"My body completely changed," he explained. "Each year I just kept on throwing harder and harder. It was crazy. I came into college with these kids who threw 95 and I was like, 'Oh man, what am I going to do? I only throw 86-88.' It was unbelievable. It was crazy how it happened, but I guess I was just a late developer. I kept on building strength."
He was drafted in 2009 by the Toronto Blue Jays, who selected him with the 37th pick. He did not sign, however, and planned to return to Kentucky for his senior year, but the NCAA ruled him ineligible because of a contact with agent Scott Boras.
Unsigned in pro ball and ineligible for college competition, Paxton found himself in no man's land until the next draft. What would seem to be a nightmare for most in his situation would turn out to be a key development year for Paxton.
"It was an interesting time for me because I had all that time off," he said. "I can't tell you how many bullpens I was throwing. I didn't stop throwing, I was throwing bullpens to my dad that entire time."
It was just James and his father. With no pitching coach in his ear telling him what to do or where his arm angle should be, Paxton's delivery began to change.
"In college I was a low 3/4, I was almost sidearm," he said. "Now I am probably a high 3/4 and I think that is because that's what was comfortable for me. It's hard to explain the reason why, it just kind of happened. It was very organic, just the way my body wanted to throw. Everyone is different and I feel like you have got to do what your body wants to do and then refine it. This works for me, and I feel it is what gives me such good downward angle on my ball."
With a comfortable delivery and mostly favorable results, it has since been about refining it. Repeat-ability of delivery is the goal of every pitcher, and for a tall lanky pitcher like Paxton it can be a challenge. For him it was the final piece of the puzzle.
He knew he had good stuff. That stuff was little match for competition at the Double-A level and below. At Triple-A he was learning to pitch to hitters who had an approach. Some days the results were good. Other days his command failed him.
"He had been getting too much tilt," recalled Mariners pitching coach Rick Waits, who worked with Paxton in 2013 as the organization's minor-league pitching coordinator. "He was having trouble catching up. He got to a point mid-season where he said, 'You know, I need to try to change this.' Almost instantly he had it and all of a sudden he's catching up. Everything got sharper, but mainly his command got better."
He identified a problem and made a change with the help of senior advisors to Jack Zduriencik, Ted Simmons and Pete Vukovich. The pair advised him to get the MLB app on his iPad and take a look at a pitcher that reminded them of him, Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw.
"Watching him one day it just kind of clicked to me that where he was bringing back his arm was different than mine and I started thinking, 'OK, why does he do that?' " Paxton said. "I tried it one day and I realized how much easier it was to get on top of the baseball. I practiced it and practiced it and it came pretty easy. It wasn't hard to change that drop back, just bring it up a little bit. It made it that much easier to repeat and just get on top of the baseball."
The small change compacted his delivery.
"There's not so much movement. It's a shorter path to get my arm up. When I was coming down I was getting almost to my ankle at times. That is a long way to time and try to make it the same every time. But me bringing my hand out so it is just kind of going at my knee, it is an easier path to feel and repeat."
Waits believes that what we saw last year in Seattle was just a sneak peak of what we could see this year and in years to come. In addition to the stuff, he believes that Paxton has the mental game needed for success at the big league level as well.
"He's a sharp guy. He's got great peripheral vision," he said. "You can't only focus on one point, you have got to see things that are happening around you. He's always had that. He has always been a deep thinker and his focus is as good as anyone. He put that focus in the right place. That was part of the changes he made.
"He's a very, very focused, determined, hungry pitcher."
How determined? How hungry? Just look at how high he's set his sights.
"If I can be anything close to what Kershaw has turned himself into, it is going to be a heck of a deal for me," he said. "I feel like if I continue to work hard, I have a chance to get there."