As he begins the Bronx portion of his major-league career, the expectations on James Paxton could hardly be any higher.
For one thing, he is expected to immediately step in as 1A in the Yankees rotation, a half-step behind No. 1 starter Luis Severino.
For another, he comes with a resume that in the past year alone includes a no-hitter, a 16-strikeout performance, and some eye-popping reverse splits in which the big lefthander has held right-handed hitters to an anemic .226 batting average and .635 OPS over his six major-league seasons.
He also brings a higher strikeouts-per-nine-innings ratio (11.7) than any other Yankee starter, and a fastball that brushes up against 100 miles per hour.
This may all come as news to Yankees fans, who have only seen Paxton face their team twice in his career, and only once at Yankee Stadium.
But it is no surprise to the men who were there when it all started for a young kid out of Vancouver, British Columbia who somehow made his way to the SEC and the University of Kentucky.
“I would not say he’s gone further than I expected him to,’’ said Gary Henderson, who recruited him for the Wildcats, served as his pitching coach at Kentucky for three seasons and his head coach for one. “I expected him to have a very successful major league career. A guy with the ability he had is in a very small gene pool.’’
“He’s a special kid,’’ said John Cohen, the head coach at Kentucky for Paxton’s first two seasons. “Nobody is going to outwork him, and nobody is going to be more focused between the lines. I felt that if he could stay healthy, he had the potential to have a hall-of-fame type career.’’
And that seems to be the caveat with James Paxton. Everyone seems to agree: great arm, great work ethic, great makeup. If only he can stay healthy.
“He kept having little issues,’’ Cohen said of Paxton’s time in Lexington. “Nothing major, just little bitty tiny issues that bothered him, and that’s really typical for a young kid pitching at the highest level in college baseball.’’
One of those issues, a back problem, kept Paxton from pitching in a regional playoff game against Arizona in what Cohen called “probably the biggest game in Kentucky history to that point.’’
Those issues have followed Paxton into the major leagues. Over six seasons, he has made just 102 starts and the 160-1/3 innings he threw in 2018 were a career-high. But his injuries have not been the type to alarm big-league GMs — he has been sidelined with a forearm strain, a pectoral muscle strain and a back strain — and his agent, Scott Boras, naturally spun his light workload into a positive.
“He doesn’t have a lot of innings on his arm. He’s got a fresh arm,’’ Boras said. “His chronological age is 30, innings-wise he’s more like 24.’’
Likewise, Yankees GM Brian Cashman, who traded away top pitching prospect Justus Sheffield and two minor-leaguers to acquire Paxton from the Seattle Mariners last week, said the Yankees were comfortable that Paxton’s injuries were minor.
“You’re never completely comfortable with anything,’’ Cashman said. “But his injuries weren’t shoulder or elbow related, and the forearm thing was a flexor strain that only took him down for 10 days.’’
Henderson and Cohen have known Paxton since he was a gangly 16-year-old who stood 6-2 but barely weighed 180 pounds. They both loved his arm — as a high schooler, Paxton could throw 84 miles per hour and had a tight curveball — they loved his supportive but not coddling family, they loved his maturity and his commitment to education.
Henderson was particularly impressed by Paxton’s dad, Ted, who retrains older workers for new careers in Ladner, BC, a suburb of Vancouver. Cohen recalled a recruiting visit to Paxton’s hometown in which Ted welcomed him at the airport – and made sure to drive past the home of Ladner’s “other’’ famous resident, actor Michael J. Fox.
“The other thing I remember was having dinner with the family and the sheer amount of food that James Paxton ate that night,’’ Cohen said. “It was astonishing, how much that kid could eat.’’
As a result, by the time he got to Kentucky, Paxton’s body, which neither man was quite sure about, had grown to 6-4, 200 lbs., and his fastball velocity had increased to 88-90 mph. By his junior year, he was hitting 93.
“The thing that stood out to me about James is that he really attacked the weight room,’’ Cohen said. “A lot of kids are scared to go full throttle on strength and conditioning, but not him. He really changed the nature of his body. And as he got stronger in his lower half his velocity started to increase.’’
But beyond Paxton’s physical ability, Cohen was particularly impressed by his other-worldly poise for a teenager. “He was an incredibly focused young man,’’ Cohen said. “He had that great stoic facial expression that never changed and that’s so hard for an 18, 19 , 20-year-old to not show any emotion at all.’’
Cohen got an opponent’s-eye view of that expression during Paxton’s junior year when, having left Kentucky to coach Mississippi St., he and his team found themselves facing Kentucky, with its rotation of Paxton, Andrew Albers and Chris Rusin, all of whom eventually made it to the big leagues.
“When we saw him again, he had made this huge velocity jump,’’ Cohen said. “He was touching 96, 98. And I remember seeing him and saying, man, this guy’s a big leaguer. The path of his arm looks like a big-leaguer. His demeanor looks like a big leaguer. Everything about him said big leaguer.’’
Paxton’s career was nearly derailed when he chose not to sign with the Toronto Blue Jays after being selected in the first round of the 2009 amateur draft, preferring to return to Kentucky for his senior year. But the NCAA ruled him ineligible because of his association with agent Scott Boras, and Paxton was forced to play for the Grand Prairie Air Hogs of the American Association, for whom he made four starts. Probably as a result, he fell to the fourth round in 2010, where the Mariners picked him.
“That hurt both James and Kentucky,’’ Cohen said. “(Kentucky) basically lost a first-round pick who should have come back to pitch for them. And James lost practically a whole season.’’
Paxton started just 50 games over his first four seasons, posting an 18-15 record and 3.43 ERA. But he began to fully achieve the potential his college coaches had predicted for him in 2017, when he went 12-5 with a 2.98 ERA.
But the real highlights came last season, first when he shrugged off the attack of a bald eagle on Opening Day in Minnesota, and a month later when he pitched his first career no-hitter, appropriately enough against the Blue Jays.
“That’s the exact same kid we had at Kentucky,’’ said Henderson, referring to Paxton’s relaxed response to the eagle landing on his shoulder. “A lot of people would have lost their minds and started running around, but not him.’’
“If you put a heart rate monitor on him,’’ Cohen said, “I’d bet his heart rate didn’t jump one beat. He just doesn’t get rattled.’’
And that’s why both men believe New York will love James Paxton as much as James Paxton will love New York.
“He’s the perfect guy to pitch for the Yankees,’’ Cohen said. “He will live in some ways almost a hermetically sealed existence. He is so focused on what he’s doing, I don’t think James lets anything else in. It’s just his family and baseball, in that order. He will be a model citizen for the New York Yankees.’’
Said Henderson: “I think he’s smart, I think he’s tough. And I think he’s going to do well.’’