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40 in 40: James Paxton

Oedipus Pax.

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Bro, if you just quit murdering sleep, I think you'd stop seeing those weird sisters everywhere.
Bro, if you just quit murdering sleep, I think you'd stop seeing those weird sisters everywhere.
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Literary scholars have long disagreed over the exact definition of the Greek word hamartia. First found in Aristotle’s Poetics, hamartia has most often been translated as "a fatal flaw," that which keeps a tragic hero from reaching his objective. Dante described it as "a movement of spirit," a sort of internal engine that moves the plot forward. Jules Brody, on the other hand, reminds us that hamartia is a morally neutral term; it simply means an act which ends in failure rather than success.

James Paxton’s 2015 season with the Mariners was seemingly penned by one of these Greek scribes, as was his 2014. Both years, he started only 13 games [
pauses to allow raven to fly across the stage], posting slightly worse numbers in 2015 than 2014. At 27 years old, suddenly the sand is accumulating in the wrong end of Paxton’s big league hourglass. Is there time for the big lefty to change the course of his stars?

Act I

All good tragedies begin with an exposition that introduces the character. The chorus tells you the history of Thebes. The witches show up and make a prediction. I tell you that James Alston Paxton, born in November 1988 in Ladner, BC, attended the same school as Jason Priestley. While at Delta Secondary, Paxton played for the North Delta Blue Jays of the PBL, posting a 1.51 ERA  with 100 strikeouts in 78 innings through 2005. In 2006, his numbers dropped slightly to 65 strikeouts in 50 innings pitched, due to injury, or what we English majors like to call "foreshadowing."

Following a stint as a member of Canada’s Junior National team, Paxton enrolled at Kentucky, pitching out of the bullpen as a freshman before earning a spot in the Wildcats rotation. As a sophomore, he pitched a complete game shutout against Ole Miss; as a junior, he recorded 115 strikeouts in 78 innings, the fifth-highest single season strikeout total in school history. Scouts began crowding the stands. There was talk of him going in the first round of the 2009 draft. The crown is within Macbeth’s grasp.

Act II:
Here we come to our first reversal of fortune. The protagonist, reaching a height of success, is crushed under the machinations of his own fate. In 2009, James Paxton was drafted in the first round by his home country’s team, the Toronto Blue Jays. Scott Boras, cartoon vulture with money signs for eyes, showed up as Paxton’s "advisor." However, Paxton, a 3.3 honor roll student and Accounting major, decided he wanted to complete his education and earn a degree. He returned to Kentucky, where the NCAA promptly declared him ineligible to return to the baseball program, alleging there had been direct contact between the Blue Jays and Boras. Paxton left school in April, one semester short of earning his degree. "I have a hard time putting that experience into words," is all Paxton will say of that time. Bereft of his team, Paxton found himself pitching backyard sessions again (his dad, as he has since James was ten, acted as catcher). His first professional signing was not with the vaunted Blue Jays, but with the American Independent League Grand Prairie Air Hogs. Fate likes to remind us all that our natural state is one of smallness.

Act III:
The Mariners took Paxton in the fourth round of the 2010 draft, and he moved quickly from Clinton to Jackson in 2011, remaining there for the 2012 season. In 2013, he was promoted to Tacoma, where he posted a 4.45 ERA in 28 games but showed improvement as the season progressed. At Tacoma, the Mariners decided Paxton needed to change his delivery to mirror that of Clayton Kershaw, something Colin wrote about here with the prescience of one of Macbeth's witches:

Can he continue to use his improved delivery without re-injuring his shoulder?

Paxton spent the majority (April - August) of 2014 on the DL with a strained lat, which became a strained shoulder, then morphed back into a strained lat. 2015 began with him falling awkwardly on his forearms during an agility drill, because James Paxton would like to give you an object lesson in dramatic irony, slowing his progress in spring training. On May 29th, Paxton left an outing against the Cleveland Indians–in which he threw a crapton of pitches in less than five full innings of work, giving up eight hits and four runs–with a strained middle finger. Once again, it was late summer before Paxton returned to the mound, and once again, his initial injury morphed into a freak show host of others: a blister, then a torn fingernail. Double, double, toil and trouble.

James Paxton’s career, so far, lines up eerily well with the structure of a traditional tragedy: a rise and fall, fortunes reversing; the once-great hero is brought low, inspiring pity and fear in the audience. So too does Paxton represent a proper tragic hero: his failures are not the result of any vice or moral failing, but his hamartia, the injuries that have hung over head like the witches’ predictions over Macbeth’s. The 2016 season represents a make-or-break moment in James Paxton’s career. On the bright side, as Jake wrote the other day, ZiPS and Steamers both project him to have a solid, if unspectacular, season; a season of a groundling rather than the tragic king. However, if he cannot remain healthy for a third consecutive year, Paxton may find himself, like Macbeth, out of time.