James Paxton has stared into the eyes of a bald eagle.
“We locked eyes and I knew he was coming at me,” Paxton said. “I thought, ‘Oh, boy, here we go.’”
Clearly, the bird knew of Paxton’s nickname – Big Maple – because of all the players on the field at the Minnesota Twins home opener last April 5, he chose Paxton’s right shoulder to use as his perch.
“He landed on the ground right in front of me and I thought, ‘This doesn’t seem right,’” Paxton said. “This shouldn’t be happening. And the next thing I knew, I felt it land on my back.”
Paxton survived the eagle attack – a paper in Minnesota used the headline “The Eagle Has Landed” – and then went out and pitched pretty well against the Twins, striking out seven in five innings.
“I knew that all anyone would want to talk about was that bird landing on me,” he said. “But I had a job to do, and I just said to myself, ‘I’ll cover this later.’ I put it on the shelf and said, it’s time to pitch. I put all my focus into pitching that game.”
After that, it’s hard to imagine anything fazing James Paxton on the mound at Yankee Stadium.
Certainly not an encroaching eagle – such avian displays have been banned in the Bronx since another bird of prey, Challenger the bald eagle, nearly de-Captainated Derek Jeter before Game 1 of the 2003 ALCS.
And perhaps not the assaults of the defending World Champion Boston Red Sox, who invade nine times a year, nor the rest of the AL East, who make another 27 or so visits to the Bronx every year, nor the insatiable demands of baseball’s most vociferous fan base.
“I know there’s a lot more pressure to win in New York,” said Paxton, who was acquired from the Seattle Mariners last week in a trade for prospect Justus Sheffield and two minor leaguers and is now expected to be the No. 2 starter in the Yankees rotation behind Luis Severino.
“There’s a lot more intensity than there was in Seattle, the rivalry with Boston and stuff like that,” he said. “But I’m kinda looking forward to that kind of energy. I feel like I can feed off that energy and it’s going to take me to another level, take me in a positive way. I know there’s a lot of stories about guys coming in and having troubles, but I think there’s an equal number of stories of guys coming in there and doing great.”
Paxton, a 30-year-old lefthander who has been lights-out the past two seasons when he wasn’t on the disabled list, believes his Bronx Tale will be one of the latter.
He realizes plenty of excellent pitchers have been eaten up by the intensity of New York, most recently Sonny Gray and a dozen years ago, Randy Johnson, one of Paxton’s idols.
But Paxton has a couple of things going for him those two did not. Unlike Johnson, he’s not coming to New York with a chip on his shoulder but with open arms, eager to drink in what the city has to offer.
“My wife (Katie) and I really enjoy the city,” he said. “We’re looking forward to living in the city during the season.”
And unlike Gray, who was born in Nashville and grew up in small-town Smyrna, Tennessee, Paxton comes from just outside Vancouver, one of the largest and most cosmopolitan cities in Canada. So it’s unlikely that even a place as daunting to some as New York will seem alien to him.
But most importantly, the success of Paxton’s tenure in New York – he is under team control for the next two seasons – will hinge on how well he pitches. And after a mediocre start to his career, over the past two seasons, Paxton has gone 23-11 with a 3.40 ERA and 364 strikeouts in 296 innings. And in 2018, Paxton, who has been sidelined by forearm, back and pectoral muscle injuries, worked a career high 160-1/3 innings. Last May 2, he struck out 16 Oakland A’s in seven innings, and six days later, threw a no-hitter against the Toronto Blue Jays, the team that originally selected him in the first round of the 2009 amateur draft. Both his fastball and sinker averaged 96 miles per hour in 2018, and on occasion he has been known to hit triple digits.
Clearly, Paxton is a rapidly improving starting pitcher on a team that needs to rapidly improve its starting pitching.
“We’re comfortable with his injury history because none of his injuries were shoulder or elbow related,” Yankees GM Brian Cashman said.
Cashman said that after the failure of the Sonny Gray experiment, he is also as comfortable as he can be with Paxton’s ability to perform in New York short of actually seeing him do it.
“You’re never completely comfortable with anything because there’s no test you can apply to someone to find out how he will deal with a given situation,” Cashman said. “But we did plenty of recon on him and everyone said the same thing. Hell of a competitor, great teammate, makeup off the charts.”
Cashman said he solicited the opinions of a bunch of ex-Yankees – Adam Warren, David Phelps, James Pazos, Ben Gamel, and of course, Robbie Cano – before deciding to pull the trigger on Paxton.
Paxton, too, said he would call on Cano for advice on how to deal with the relentless scrutiny in New York from the media and the fans. “I loved playing with Robbie,” Paxton said. “He’s very easy-going but he’s also really smart and knows how to handle things.”
Previously, Cano acted as the intermediary to bring Paxton together with another of his boyhood idols, Andy Pettitte, who he says was his favorite player growing up. He even stares into homeplate, with his eyes peering over his glove like Pettitte did.
“I loved how he carried himself. He just seemed like a true professional,” Paxton said. “I liked the way he pitched. I liked his pickoff move. And I just loved his whole presence on the mound.”
A couple of years ago, Cano called Pettitte and arranged for the two to speak by phone. “He dropped some knowledge on me and gave me some things to think about,” Paxton said.
And last week, when the trade was completed, Paxton said Pettitte was one of the first people, after Cashman and manager Aaron Boone, to contact him.
“He texted me that he was fired up that I was a Yankee,” Paxton said. “He must’ve kept my number after that time we talked, which was pretty cool.”
Cool is the operative word to describe Paxton, who after pitching his no-hitter against the Blue Jays, the team he turned down in 2009 to return to the University of Kentucky, made sure to flash the maple leaf tattoo on his forearm to the Rogers Centre crowd.
“Throwing it in Toronto couldn’t have worked out any better,” said Paxton, who grew up a Mariners fan because of the relatively short distance (142 miles) between Vancouver and Seattle. “Being able to share it with the Canadian fans was really cool. I have friends and a cousin who live in Toronto and they were all at the game. Plus since it was on Rogers Sports Night it was on TV back in Vancouver so my family could watch it too.”
Paxton’s agent, Scott Boras, believes his client was particularly effective that night out of a desire to show the Blue Jays what they could have had; according to Boras, the Blue jays “didn’t fully believe in James’ ability” and offered him less money than they expected.
As a result, Paxton chose to return to Kentucky for his senior year, but was declared ineligible for violating NCAA rules about having an agent. After pitching one season of American Association ball for the Air Hogs of Grand Prairie, Texas, Paxton re-entered the draft – but fell to the fourth round, where Seattle took him.
“He’s a proud Canadian and when you turn down the Blue Jays because they don’t believe in you, that’s a hard thing to do,” Boras said. “That says something about his character. He’s a quality human being.”
But Paxton believes it all worked out for the best. He loved his time in Seattle, but like many players who find themselves relocating to the Bronx, now says this is where he wanted to be all along.
“When I got traded my grandma reminded me of something I told here when I was 8 or 9 years old,” he said. “She remembered asking me which team I wanted to play for, and I said the Yankees. So I finally made it.”