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40 in 40: James Paxton

The Lefty from Ladner enters 2018 with many hopes on those broad Canadian shoulders

MLB: Los Angeles Angels at Seattle Mariners
James do you think you can strike out Mike Trout a fifth time okay great
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

There is a theory from the late fourth century that the etymology of the Cerberus comes from the greek creoboros, which means “flesh-devouring.” Though not accepted by all scholars, I like the savagery of this naming convention: slapping the most directly relevant name possible onto the creature so that you cannot possibly miss what this thing is all about.

In the legend, the dogs are one beast; the heads are not distinguished with personalities. In Seattle, two of the heads always garnered more attention. Danny Hultzen and Taijuan Walker were always the strongest heads of Seattle’s Cerberus; both the first Mariner selected in their draft, one with the highest floor (all together now: there is no floor) and one with the tantalizing athletic ability to pump gas and slam dunks. James Paxton? James Paxton was always there, always interesting, always a prospect, but as a fourth rounder, he always stood back a little from the others—even in promotional photos. But as injury and then roster holes swept away the others, James Paxton kept pounding the zone with that deceptively lackadaisical delivery, and suddenly, the man at the back of the big three was the only one we needed.

Ladner is a quiet fishing town in British Columbia at the mouth of the Fraser River. Its small-town feel belies its proximity to Vancouver and Surrey, which dwarf it in size and notoriety. Ladner is mostly known for what it isn’t known for: a commonly-used shooting location for tv shows and movies, heralded for its small-town USA aura. Lacking the population and glamour to be a major attraction, we notice Ladner on movie sets without ever seeing it as itself. It is a pitcher so calm and level that a glove pound takes on extra import for its rarity. It is the sort of town that looks the same a week after you leave as it does ten years after you leave—no, no, that isn’t right; British Columbia has seen the same sort of development as Seattle. But on the silver screen, Ladner is the same now as it ever shall be.

June 1, 2016. James Paxton is called from Tacoma to replace an ailing Felix Hernandez. He is shelled for eight runs and the Mariners are drubbed. But James Paxton did the same thing he has done for his whole professional career; not needing to be a high draft pick, not needing to burst on the scene. In time, the results would come, the velocity and control from a mechanical tweak would pay dividends. The smartest among us noticed; the rest of us had to wait a little longer. The results came soon enough.

June 11, 2017. Now we all know. James enters this Sunday with an immaculate 2.01 FIP even after a May diversion to the disabled list. On this day the Maple Grove is born: a fledgling organic appreciation by locals for their native son. Paxton gives up four runs, and an ineffective Seattle offense leaves him tagged with the loss. A disappointing but hardly devastating start, and a day that eventually earns him new national attention because of a dedicated bunch of fans and a tree in the bleachers. In July, James Paxton goes 6-0 and is named American League Pitcher of the Month.

Pitchers control so little of their baseball fate. In addition to the roster moves every young player cannot control (hello, Taijuan Walker), pitchers are uniquely susceptible to injury (hello, Danny Hultzen) and the vagaries of their fielders (hello, FIP). Two of our big three were felled by other, more vicious flesh-devourers. James Paxton survived; bringing us donuts and strikeouts in equal measure, the quiet Canadian enters 2018 as the clear-cut Mariners ace on the merits (though a King in exile is still our King.) The only thing holding him back now is health. Keeping a pitcher healthy is still one of baseball’s greatest mysteries, but James Paxton has spent his career outrunning and outlasting everyone else to excel. I am not worried.

October 25, 2018. James Paxton starts game one of the World Series. He throws 5.2 innings, yielding 2 runs, and the Mariners lose. A week later, the Mariners win game six and the Series behind eight strong innings.