Yankees Magazine: Icebreaker
Once you get to know James Paxton, you can't help but feel optimistic about the newest Yankees left-hander
It's not your fault if you weren't paying attention. You're a contributing member of society, with things to do in the morning. You can stay up late all you want, but your kids are still going to come racing into your bedroom at first light, and your boss never appreciates when you fall asleep at your desk. Living on West Coast time is fine, so long as you live on the West Coast.
So you deserve a pass. How were you really supposed to watch James Paxton pitch?
While you were sleeping, though, Paxton was quietly racking up more than strikeouts; he was also collecting admirers, many of them in the scouting and analytics community. Friends -- biased, to be sure -- talk about him in the same breath as the best lefties in the game today, and while those pals can't be trusted to be impartial, you might look at the video yourself and begin to understand. That knuckle-curve, diving to the dirt, perfectly tunneled with the high fastball that seems to rise at the last instant. Or the way he attacks the strike zone with an insistent self-confidence, mixing in the two-seamer, the cutter and the change-up. You'll start wishing that you had watched more Mariners games these past few years.
Or at the very least, you might just wonder, Who is this guy?
"I can't go out there and promise results, or say I'm going to throw this many innings this year," says Paxton, who has averaged just 112 frames a season since he first broke camp with the Mariners in 2014. "I don't know what's going to happen. But one thing I can tell the fans is that you're going to get everything I've got. I'm not going to hold back at all."
Those four sentences might just tell the whole story when it comes to this newest of Yankees starting pitchers. In Paxton, there live the paradoxes of an easy-throwing power pitcher, a brashness that somehow overflows with an obvious humility and an apparent decency. He operates quietly, with so much so close to his vest, but he also wears a massive, look-at-me-seeming tattoo that flies in the face of his whole personality.
This spring is getting-to-know-you time for the newcomer, who had been a part of Seattle's system for his entire professional career before the November 2018 trade that sent him to New York. Years ago, he played for a few weeks with Didi Gregorius in the Arizona Fall League. And J.A. Happ pitched a stretch with the Mariners in 2015. But otherwise, Paxton is starting totally fresh. "It's going to be weird," he says. "I haven't been the new guy in a long time. Learning names, it's going to be big for me. I'm probably going to have to do a lot of studying, looking at the roster, that kind of stuff, so I don't screw up guys' names on the first day. It will take me a little bit of time to get that going."
In that case, consider this a literal icebreaker, a true gift from the metaphor gods. Allow us to introduce James Alston Paxton of Ladner, British Columbia, a man determined to be the surprise big fish of the 2019 Hot Stove season.
We might as well start with the things you already know. There was Paxton's no-hitter in May 2018, just a few days after he struck out 16 batters in his previous start. There was the bald eagle that terrifyingly dive-bombed him, then perched itself on his shoulder, and on that subject, we'll break new ground by simply moving right by it, other than to pass along Paxton's greatest fear as the majestic bird approached: that he would swat at it, hurt it somehow and subsequently get deported. And there are the injuries. You know about them. You're nervous about them.
So let's dive in. Paxton has visited the disabled list seven times since 2014, felled by, in declining order of recency: left forearm contusion, lower back inflammation, strained left pectoral, left forearm strain, left elbow contusion, left middle finger strain and left latissimus dorsi muscle strain. In addition to the DL trips, he has also missed time due to pneumonia and a torn fingernail.
The list is longer than you'd like, but it's largely superficial. Twice, Paxton got injured on freakish comebackers (one coming at the end of a game in which he had struck out Mike Trout four times, so you have to think that was a pretty conflicting day, emotionally). And the rest is similarly benign.
But what if you made the argument from the opposite pole? Paxton is 30 years old and has enjoyed tremendous success over the past two years, striking out 10.3 batters per nine innings in 2017 and upping that figure to 11.7 last year. Yet he opens the 2019 campaign with just 5821⁄3 miles on his odometer. Watch his delivery, though, and you'll see something else, something perhaps just as important. He's a tall guy, 6-foot-4, and he can get the ball consistently up to about 96-98 mph. But his mechanics look so easy. Paxton stores so much of his load on his back (left) foot as he enters his wind-up, then unleashes his coiled kinetic chain effortlessly to deliver another fireball. His stride is long, and he plants his front foot hard, but it's clean-looking and deceptively controlled.
"It's all about rhythm," Paxton says in between reps at the gym run by his brother-in-law and former minor league roommate, Steven Hensley. "If you can align your kinetic chain and have everything firing at the exact time, you can have a really smooth, powerful movement. … It's kind of like an elastic band -- building up that tension, and then letting it go."
The benefit, of course, is that by relying on his lower body and core for so much of the explosion's duration, Paxton's arm is mostly along for the ride, an apparent outlier among the extreme and torturous strain most power pitchers' whips endure. "It's not a violent delivery," he says. "I feel like I try to do a good job of getting my body into position and giving my arm the best chance to stay healthy."
That contradiction drew the Yankees' eyeballs early this offseason, long before the slog of free agency ground the industry to a halt. Manager Aaron Boone, who recognizes echoes of Andy Pettitte in his new left-hander, knows that Paxton is more than an injury risk. "We feel like he's a guy that, for being 30 years old, is also, in a lot of ways, just scratching the surface," Boone says. "He hasn't racked up a lot of innings. He's had some different, lingering, nagging injuries. And we really feel like we have a chance -- for as much success as he's already had -- we feel like there's an opportunity for him to come here and have his best couple years with us."
If Paxton could design an ideal future, it would look a whole lot like May of 2018, when he was 3-0 in six starts with a 1.67 ERA and allowed just a .432 OPS. He was dominant in every way on May 2, striking out 16 in seven innings. His next start was the no-hitter, one that, like so many of its kind, featured some truly remarkable defense behind him. To the pitcher, while the experience and celebration of the no-no will last a lifetime, there's something different about that 16-K effort (which the Mariners ended up losing, giving up three runs after Paxton exited). "That game was a bit more on me, just blowing guys away," Paxton says. "My fastball in that game was the best fastball I've ever had. They had no chance. It was just exploding out of my hand. I felt like I could throw it by anybody, anytime."
Comparatively, Paxton didn't even feel all that good for most of the no-hitter in Toronto. He says that he was missing spots and getting lucky at points. But once the ninth inning came around, he brought the heat. Paxton needed just seven pitches -- all four-seam fastballs, the slowest coming in at 95.5 mph -- to do away with Toronto's batters in the final frame. "I was just letting it rip," he says. "I was like, 'I'm going to empty the tank. I'm going to give it everything I've got.'" With two outs, it all came down to Josh Donaldson, the 2015 American League MVP and a three-time All-Star. "Of course," Paxton laughs. "It had to be him to challenge me to finish it off. Which was awesome. I loved that part of it. It was like, 'All right, you're going to make me earn it.' And I reared back and gave him everything I had."
Donaldson swung though 98. He looked at 99.5. Then he got his bat on 99, grounding out to third base and setting off the binational celebration. The Blue Jays fans had long since given up rooting against Seattle. This was a historic moment, the first no-hitter a Canadian had ever pitched in Canada. And it was the end of a pretty remarkable six-day stretch for the oft-snakebit pitcher. "Just a really fun week," Paxton says.
That would be a fun week for anyone. But it's possible, in an assessment that might regrettably seem uncharitable, to believe that it might feel particularly so for a person such as Paxton. Because no matter how forceful his arsenal on the mound, no matter how dynamic his heights, Paxton seems to enjoy giving off a, well, charmingly boring vibe. His idea of a wild time is a quiet afternoon on a lake. So where better to get to know the guy?
Little Potato Lake is … somewhere in Wisconsin, about an hour's drive north from Paxton's offseason home in Eau Claire. As you merge off the semi-trafficked Route 53 and into the unincorporated acreage of Rusk County, you'll no doubt at least consider dictating a last will and testament to Siri.
We're here, standing on a bit more than a foot of ice, because ice fishing sounds like something Canadians do, right? Paxton always laughs at the impression fans have of his hometown, which is actually located just north of the Canada/U.S. border on the Tsawwassen peninsula. As the crow flies, it's only about 100 miles to his former home field in Seattle, with its mild (if rainy) conditions. "Everyone thinks we live in igloos," he jokes.
Ice fishing is new to Paxton, but the guy knows his way around a tackle box. He used to fish with his grandfather during trips to Saturna Island, off the coast of British Columbia. Before baseball came to occupy too much of his time, they would go every summer, coming home with rockfish, lingcod and great memories. The family also had a cabin on Bowyer Island near Vancouver, an image of which can be seen in the maple leaf-shaped, Canada-sized tattoo on Paxton's right arm.
Two guides, Chris Powell and Jim Welch, lead Paxton through the motions (or lack thereof). There's no high heat on the frozen surface. Instead, we'll spend our afternoon enjoying the sunset and surprisingly warm conditions, all the while watching for the slightest signs of motion from the spring bobbers at the end of the rods and reacting with appropriate counter-aggression. The placid and pleasing nature suits the pitcher.
Ignore last May. Frankly, ignore most of what Paxton has done under the watchful gaze of millions of baseball fans. That's his superhero side. In real life, Paxton is much more Clark Kent. The 325 or so days a year he doesn't pitch play out a lot like this.
He fishes. Ask Paxton about hobbies, and he mentions fishing. Interests? Well, there's fishing. He just really likes it, not as something to do every day, but maybe as something to think about at least that much. "This is kind of like meditation," he says out on the ice. "I do meditation practices. I think it's good for lowering stress." And the rest? Well, he reads. He really likes hanging out with wife, watching Netflix with his wife, walking his young puppy, Duke, with his wife. He mentions Katie so often that there's a chance he thinks we're giving her all of our interview footage. But it's so clearly genuine -- lived in, really -- that you have to smile.
He and Katie moved to Eau Claire to be closer to her parents, partly because they spent the Mariners' seasons so close to his. Put mildly, there's not a whole lot that Eau Claire offers that Seattle doesn't. Except for Katie's family.
Now it's off to New York, where they'll live in a Manhattan apartment, and that's exciting for the young couple. Katie spent some time studying there, but Paxton has only been to New York with the Mariners. "She's going to teach me the subway system and how to get to the ballpark," he says. He's excited about the sights, and he wants to see the Harry Potter play on Broadway. But the biggest thing on his mind, by far, is probably on the itinerary of exactly zero percent of other young professionals who move to New York: long visits from mom and dad.
"They've never been to New York," Paxton says of his parents, who pushed him to fight through homesickness when he was at the University of Kentucky, who caught his side sessions when he would return home, who didn't let him give up when he tried out for and got cut from his first all-star team in Ladner. "They would come down to Seattle a lot, just to watch me play. But they'd come for the game and then just drive home. One thing I'm looking forward to about playing in New York is that when they come out, they'll stay for like a week. So we'll actually get to spend more time together, which will be really cool."
A few hours on the ice is enough on this pleasant Friday evening, even if Paxton keeps angling for a few more chances at a few more holes (to say nothing of the ultimate highlight, when he gets to use an industrial power auger to drill a hole himself). He reels in and throws back more than a few bluegills and crappies, little nothings that can't compare to the 8-foot sturgeon he caught a few months ago near Seattle. These are small fish in a big pond; Paxton hopes the metaphor ends there.
Hensley's 6,200-square-foot facility, where Paxton works out when he's in Eau Claire, has a mantra painted on the wall: "Excellence is never an accident." That's a message the pitcher preaches to the young kids who visit for a baseball clinic the day after the ice-fishing expedition. Through three sessions ascending in age from young elementary school students up through high schoolers, Paxton talks about mechanics, about the smaller factors of success: balance, repetition and, yes, health. This isn't a showcase with radar guns and scouts. It's the part of the Lego model that you don't see, the structural support that has helped the national pastime remain strong and healthy.
Every little piece matters. Paxton throws five different pitches -- a four-seamer, two-seamer, knuckle-curve, cutter and change-up -- and each is dynamic in its own way. But the body has to work together for the result to come. A few years ago, Paxton suddenly lost a few ticks off his fastball before a minor league coach noticed that his arm angle had gotten too high. They worked to get him back to about a three-quarters motion, and suddenly, the pitcher was hitting 98 again. It's not all that different from being out on the ice. Stay calm, observe and react.
"I'm really looking forward to him being in a bigger market, where he'll get the notoriety that he deserves and that he's earned," Hensley says of his baseball clinic's main attraction. "But for the kids in this area, I really want them to latch on to what they have in their backyard. This is one of the best of the best. Him and Chris Sale are the two best lefties in the big leagues, bar none. I would say that right now. And I would say that James is better. Because he has a couple more pitches that are plus. Chris Sale has been doing it for a while, though." You'll forgive the brother-in-law/best buddy for some hyperbole, but then, who knows what Paxton is truly capable of? Hensley recalls a pitch from 2017, when Paxton hit Albert Pujols on the foot, but the future Hall of Famer swung and missed. "Probably one of the best players ever to play the game," Hensley says, laughing. "So when you see a guy like Albert having to cheat -- and he very rarely ever has to cheat to get to a pitch -- and then get fooled like that, you know your stuff is really good." Last year, another pitch corkscrewed Manny Machado. This isn't your everyday stuff.
That giant tattoo, visible from space, is as contradictory as it is conspicuous. This is a guy who loves his home country, who's proud of who he is and where he was and where he is, who knows what it means to be just the second Canadian ever to throw a no-hitter. But he's also someone who understands the importance of a slow, placid, yet deceptively explosive ethic, one that should play as well in the Bronx as it does on the water.
"I take this game very seriously," Paxton says. "I take my pitching very seriously. That's one thing that's going to align with the Yankees so well -- that I take what I do so seriously, and I work so hard at it. I feel like that's what the Yankees are all about -- coming in, doing the work and getting the job done. That's what I'm about, too."