Wherever you go these days, it’s impossible to hear folks talk about James Paxton without the names Danny Hultzen and Taijuan Walker popping up as well. The three are considered an inseparable trio, given their high pitching ceilings. But they are also at different stages of their development and I’m often asked which of the three will make it to the majors first.
I usually go with Paxton, namely because he’s the oldest of the three and has been through the type of off-field experience that — as the saying goes — will usually make you stronger if it doesn’t finish you off first.
Paxton was involved in a controversial legal fight with the University of Kentucky and the NCAA that led to his filing a lawsuit to attempt to play the 2010 season after turning down a $1-million signing bonus from the Toronto Blue Jays. You can read about the case in the story I’ve filed for tomorrow’s paper.
Needless to say, the legal fight cost Paxton a lot in terms of draft status — tumbling to the fourth round with Seattle — and the number of innings he got to work in 2010. But he’s bounced back nicely, stormed through Class A and AA last year and is a longshot bet to make the Mariners as quickly as this spring.
Paxton told me that, while he barely pitched in 2010, he did work out extensively with lower level minor leaguers at a training facility in Aliso Viejo, Calif. owned and operated by his agent, Scott Boras. So, it’s not like he fell out of shape or anything. Plus, he had exposure to the types of players he’d normally have been teaming with.
All that can go a long way towards helping a player’s maturity and development.
So, despite only having one year of affiliated pro experience, you have to remember that Paxton would likely be on his way to the majors this year had he not had his fight with the NCAA. To see him going there this year is not a stretch.
What will it take to get him there? A third pitch would help and he’s working on the changeup I mention in the story.
Also in the story, pitching coach Carl Willis talks about how Paxton has impressed him with his ability to repeat his delivery. That’s not easy for a young pitcher, especially one who stands 6-foot-4 like Paxton. Taller pitchers can have all types of mechanical issues when young.
We spoke yesterday about Hong-Chih Kuo, a 12-year pro and former major league all-star, whose major task this spring will be to repeat his own delivery and keep his mechanics sound.
The more consistent a pitcher’s delivery stays, the more likely he is to keep putting his pitches exactly where he wants them. It’s really that simple.
And in two bullpen sessions, that’s what jumps out at Willis.
Now, I tried to ask Willis about Michael Pineda, another two-pitch pitcher who not only made the majors last spring, but succeeded at them. Willis rightfully said that he’s yet to see Paxton pitch enough to make any true comparisons, but that he’s better than Pineda was at repeating his delivery.
Remember, Willis saw Pineda pitch in a number of minor league games in 2010 before he was promoted to the job of Mariners pitching coach. He hasn’t had that opportunity with Paxton yet.
During his arduous journey through baseball’s no-man’s land in 2010, Paxton did make a friend on an elite journey of his own through baseball’s pro ranks.
Kansas City Royals first rounder Mike Moustakas, a No. 2 overall pick from 2007, owned an apartment in Newport Beach, Calif. and was looking for someone to share it with him when he was attending the Boras training facility.
Moustakas and Paxton were both Boras clients and were introduced. They hit it off and agreed to become roomates.
“We hung out a bit and became pretty good friends so he invited me to come back (this year) for a month,” Paxton said.
By now, Moustakas had already made his major league debut with the Royals in 2011.
“He was just telling me that it’s all you’ve ever dreamed of and more,” Paxton said. “He just told me to ‘be yourself’ and let things happen. He’s really good at boosting my confidence and everything. He really compliments a lot of the guys. It’s really cool to have a guy of his stature to call if I need advice and know he’d be willing to help me out.”
So, Paxton is already making friends in high places and training with the guys he’ll soon be joining in the majors. Don’t underestimate this kind of thing, plus the maturity gained from the experience of fighting a high profile legal case. That kind of thing tends to focus a player on what’s important, given how close Paxton came to having the fight sabotage his career.
Willis said Paxton understands the game more than a lot of young pitchers he’s seen. He said he grasps the need to learn the changeup and understands what it will do for his career if he can master it like he has his fastball and curve.
“It takes a certain bit of, you can almost say courage, to do that in your first big league setting like this,” Willis said. “He knows all eyes are on him and how everyone wants to see what he can do. But he understands that he’s here to work on things and how important that can be in the long run.”
Willis explained the importance.
“He’s got two plus-pitches already,” Willis said. “So, you figure if the hitters go up there and guess, they’ve got a 50 percent chance of getting it right. Drop that third pitch in there, and it really reduces their odds of getting it right.”
And Paxton appears to be getting most things right these days. Before long, it should land him a major league job.