Left-hander James Paxton is one of the Mariners system’s outstanding prospects. Drafted in the fourth round of the 2010 draft, he spent 2011 with Single-A Clinton and Double-A Jackson then returned to Jackson for all of 2012. Paxton, 24, has been part of Tacoma’s starting rotation for the entire 2013 season. He is first on the team with two complete games, 135.2 innings pitched, 121 strikeouts and 56 walks, and second in wins with a 7-11 record after 25 starts. He was named the Pacific Coast League’s Pitcher of the Week from June 17-23. Paxton recently sat down with Tacoma Weekly’s baseball correspondent Karen Westeen to talk about his astounding career.
KW: You’re a British Columbia native. Do you still make your home there?
JP: I visit, but I don’t spend a lot of time there anymore. I’ll go for about two weeks when the season ends, then spend some time with my girlfriend in Minneapolis. She goes to school at the University of Minnesota.
KW: Where were you on draft day?
JP: I was at home with my parents sitting on our deck, listening and watching on the computer, and we saw my name go by. My mom was screaming because she was happy that I was drafted by the Mariners so I’d be closer to home.
KW: Were you expecting them to take you?
JP: No. I really didn’t know what would happen at all so that was a great surprise.
KW: Because you’d been playing with an independent league team you didn’t sign and play right away with the Mariners’ team?
JP: I didn’t have a deadline when I had to sign, so we negotiated for a while and then I ended up going to spring training the next year.
KW: In 2011 you split the season between Clinton and Jackson, and you were in Jackson all of last season. That year Baseball America named you as the pitcher who had the best curveball in the Mariners’ organization. That sounds pretty good. Did you know that?
JP: I think I had been told that at some point but I hadn’t really looked into it.
KW: I wonder how they measure that? How many curveballs can someone look at and say “Would you throw that one again? I think it looked better than the other one.”
JP: Those scouts watch a lot of baseball games and they compare us all and have a pretty good idea of what’s going on.
KW: When you were with Clinton you were named to the Midwest League All-Star Team, just before you got called up to Jackson in 2011? Did you get to play in the All-Star game?
JP: I did. I pitched an inning.
KW: And you also pitched one inning in the All-Star Futures Game in Phoenix that year. What was that like?
JP: It was awesome. I had never pitched in front of that many people before. The electricity was just different. I was pretty pumped up.
KW: You attended the University of Kentucky for three years. Why did you go to a school so far away from your home?
JP: Out of high school that was my only offer from a Division I school. I had played on the Junior National Team in Canada and I think that some of the coaches on that team knew the coach in Kentucky and hooked us up. The coach from Kentucky came out and watched me pitch and that was my best offer, so I figured why not go there? I knew that the SEC was a really good hitters’ league and I would be challenged as a pitcher, and I thought it would be a good place for me.
KW: You were a long way from home going there. Was that really hard for you? How old were you?
JP: I was 17 my freshman year and it was really tough to uproot and go that far.
KW: How large a family do you come from?
JP: I have one younger brother, but my dad has a lot of brothers and sisters so I have a lot of aunts and uncles and cousins. There’s a lot of family there.
KW: You finished three years of college. Do you think you might ever get your degree?
JP: It’s definitely a possibility. My parents would like to hear me say yes. I don’t really have plans right now but I know at some point it’s something I’d like to do.
KW: Did you play other sports or positions while you were in high school or college?
JP: When I was real young I played first base and right field, but when I hit 13 it was strictly pitching for me.
KW: No other sports?
JP: I swam a little bit in life guard classes through high school and I played soccer when I was really young, but I didn’t like that because it was too much running. So I went to pitching.
KW: What are your earliest memories of playing baseball?
JP: We have a park right behind our house and my dad would take me there and I’d throw wiffle balls to him. I can’t tell you how many hours we’d spend there.
KW: How old were you then?
JP: About 11 or 12.
KW: Has your family gotten down here?
JP: They get down as often as they can. When I’m pitching on a weekend they can come down, but it’s tough with work to come during the week.
KW: How about your girlfriend?
JP: She’s made it out a couple of times, and she’s actually coming out for five days at the end of the season.
KW: Terry Clark came in about a month ago to replace Dwight Bernard as pitching coach. Had you worked with him at all before he got here?
JP: Yes, in spring training. This is his first year with the Mariners and we worked together for about two weeks.
KW: What was it like when he came in? Did he make any changes in your pitching?
JP: Terry just kept on doing the same things I was working on with Dwight. He just added a few small things that he noticed about my mechanics.
KW: What do you consider to be your out-pitch?
JP: I feel like it’s my fast ball and my curveball, but I’m not afraid to throw any of my pitches to get an out.
KW: Was this year the first time you’d ever been to Cheney Stadium?
KW: If you’re not pitching the first night of a series, do you watch the first games to see what the batters’ tendencies are?
JP: Yes. The pitchers sit in the stands charting pitches, but we’re also watching the hitters to see what their swings are like and what we can throw to them.
KW: How would you describe your pitching style?
JP: I just go after hitters. I’d say I’m a power fastball pitcher.
KW: What do you like to do when you have some time off?
JP: I like to do yoga in the offseason. And I like to fish, but I don’t have an opportunity very often. Whenever I can I like to go to my grandparents’ cabin to fish.
KW: Have you given any thought to what you might do when your playing days are through?
JP: Not really. Right now I’m just focused on playing ball and getting to the big leagues.
KW: What’s been the highlight of your career so far?
JP: That would probably be pitching in the playoffs with Jackson last year. That was a lot of fun. It was my first time being in the playoffs in my professional career, and was really exciting getting all the way to the championship (even though we didn’t win.)