The Mariners’ 2021 off-season wasn’t a slam-dunk by any means but it certainly improved a lot today when the signing of James Paxton became official, as signaled by the time-honored tradition of a press conference squeaking in just under the spring training gun. A bearded Paxton brought back all the good old feels—not least of which for me, personally, is remembering what a pleasure it is to transcribe the well-spoken Pax’s interviews—along with showcasing an older, wiser self hardened in the crucible of the playoffs and the New York media landscape. For Paxton, coming home to Seattle was an obvious choice for a player looking to get back to himself:
“There were a lot of teams interested in signing me this off-season. It came down to it...I really thought hard about it, and I thought that coming back to Seattle was the best long-term decision for me, and looking forward in my career and what I want to do, I want to get back to being myself this year. I really struggled last year, coming back from the back surgery. I’m comfortable here in Seattle, I love the group here, and I’m excited to be part of it.”
As for that back surgery, a quick refresher: Pax’s back apparently started bothering him towards the end of the 2019 season, but he was able to pitch through the pain—including a dominant start in a must-win Game 5 against the Astros in the ALCS playoffs—thanks to cortisone shots and Canadian Grit. In the off-season, he had surgery to remove a peridiscal cyst, an “extremely rare” condition that is treated with a microdiscectomy, or surgery to remove the affected part of the disc. While the condition is rare, microdiscectomies aren’t, at least among MLB players—our own Mitch Haniger had one to address his back troubles. What they are, though, is slow-healing, and after having surgery in February of 2020, Paxton was probably rushed back to competition before his body was fully healed (again, see Haniger-comma-Mitch). That led, according to Paxton, to a deterioration in his mechanics, which in turn led to an arm injury:
“It was tough. Going into summer camp last year, I thought that I was okay, but looking back at it now and looking at my mechanics, my back leg just wasn’t getting off the rubber very well, and it was making my arm drag behind me, and everything was just moving slow because of that. It actually put my arm in a dangerous position, and that’s what I think caused the injury to my flexor, was just my mechanics being off and not having my strength back 100%.
Looking at Paxton’s last start for the Yankees, on August 20th, when he slogged through five innings, surrendering three runs with four walks (but still striking out eight!), you can see how little bite he had on his curve and how widely he was missing the plate. His fastball velocity was down several ticks, too, hanging out in the low 90s. The arm drag he talks about in that quote is especially evident here, on a walk to Mike Zunino (!).
Paxton spent his free agency time working out in Seattle, focusing on gaining strength, and also worked on recovering his mechanics. He says he’s back to feeling “100%” and has been on-track with the velocity in his bullpens, working up to the low 90s, which is where he usually is at this point in the off-season.
And with his focus on building health and proving to the rest of the league that he’s healthy and deserving of a big contract, Paxton might be one of the few veteran pitchers on staff who is looking forward to the six-man rotation. He certainly had a...more diplomatic answer, when asked about it:
“I understand the goal, absolutely...I think that with the lack of innings that guys got last year, keeping people healthy throughout the season with the six-man, it’s probably a good idea. I personally would still like to get to that, at least 170 innings, I want to stay healthy and try and get to that mark, but I think that will be possible in a six-man rotation. But the goal is to stay healthy for the entire season, and if we’re making a push for the post-season, I believe Jerry has said that we will go with the five best guys to make that push.”
A playoff-experienced pitcher is also a different James Paxton than the Pax 1.0 version Mariners fans knew. And Pax didn’t experience the playoffs just anywhere; it was in the New York media landscape, a climate less forgiving than the Arctic tundra. But that, too, is something he feels he can bring back to a team where he will be the seasoned veteran, not the budding superstar. “That was a great experience for me, and something I can share with the guys here. That pressure. Extra pressure in New York, having that experience, being able to talk about that with guys here, and prepare and tell them the things that I learned through that experience, I think will be very beneficial to us as a group.” Paxton also cited his Yankee teammates, especially C.C. Sabathia and Masahiro Tanaka, as people who helped him adjust to the raised expectations of an AL East playoff race. Now he will be the veteran bringing his experience to bear in a younger locker room—including the players he was traded for in Justus Sheffield and Erik Swanson.
Helping to shape Seattle’s future team seems to be something Paxton is passionate about, but the former Jack Z farmhand acknowledges he has something to learn from the new crew, as well:
“I love working with young guys, I love helping them out, telling them what I know. I love learning from them. A lot of these guys coming up now have a lot of knowledge with the analytic side of the game because they’ve kind of come up in that era, and I can learn from them, and I can also teach them about the big leagues and things that I’ve learned along the way. It’s something that I really enjoy, so I’m really looking forward to working with all the young guys here.”
James Paxton-Logan Gilbert best friendship confirmed? James Paxton-Logan Gilbert best friendship confirmed.
In fact, for as much as fans have seen the Mariners’ PR machine working overdrive (hashtag Sea Us Rise), and seen the updated farm rankings come out with the Mariners organization climbing higher and higher, there’s no endorsement that feels quite as ringing as Paxton’s warm one here, the equivalent of having your cool older brother come home from college and ask if you’ve been working out:
“When I look around the clubhouse here...there’s a lot of talent. A lot of young guys, a lot of good arms, I think there’s tremendous potential here with this team. And over the next few years—and even this year, we could surprise some people—but especially over the next few years this team is going to be in a great spot to compete, and then get into the playoffs and see where it goes from there. But I really think that this team is going places.”
Here’s wishing a healthy and happy season for Pax, and that he can help lead this team to the places we all want them to go.