PEORIA, Arizona (AP) — Forget the batter’s box, pitching mound or anywhere else between the chalk lines of a baseball field.
According to Seattle Mariners manager Scott Servais, the location of one of the biggest obstacles blocking a player from consistently excelling isn’t on the diamond.
“A lot of it with that last hurdle is between your ears,” Servais said at the Peoria Sports Complex.
Servais believes starting pitcher James Paxton cleared that bar last season, and the Mariners are expecting the 28-year-old left-hander to be a major contributor in 2017 for a team that looks to end Major League Baseball’s longest current postseason drought.
“He is one of the guys ready to take the next step and be a real anchor in our rotation,” Servais said.
Paxton is preparing to improve on his 6-7 record and 3.79 earned run average of 2016. He enters spring training locked into a spot in the starting rotation. That puts him in a different position than in a year ago, when he was battling for a spot.
“It maybe feels a little bit different, but I’m going about it the same way,” Paxton said. “I’m getting myself ready, going hard to get game ready.”
Paxton began the 2016 season at Triple-A Tacoma after a poor spring. Working with Rainiers pitching coach Lance Painter, Paxton regained the form that could make him a pitcher Seattle could rely on.
“We saw a significant uptake in velocity and play ability with his fastball, with a slight tweak in his arm slot in his delivery,” Mariners general manager Jerry DiPoto said in January. “That all occurred from the end of spring training to the point that we saw him debut with the Mariners last summer.”
That debut, a June 1 outing against San Diego that saw Paxton fail to get out of the fourth inning, was dismal, but his response revealed plenty.
“I talked to him right afterward,” Servais said. “I told him, ‘You are going to get the ball again. Figure it out.’ He got better.”
As Paxton grew more comfortable with the mechanical changes he’d made, he said he began to “figure out some mental things.” Sometime during the second half of the season, he believed he cleared Servais’ hurdle between his ears.
“I feel like I got to that moment last year in the second half,” he said. “I felt like something clicked mentally for me and I was able to be more consistent. I was competing better.”
Catcher Mike Zunino noticed the difference.
“I think once he got comfortable with that arm slot, it was just confidence,” Zunino said. “His stuff was there. He wasn’t fighting himself. He could just trust himself. Once he did that, everyone saw how good it was. Once you can feel comfortable on the mound and feel that confidence, it’s a dangerous thing when a pitcher has that.”
Some of Paxton’s best outings came in August and September when Seattle was in the postseason hunt. He won his final two starts when the Mariners were vying for a wild-card berth. Seattle has a realistic goal of reaching the playoffs this season and Paxton likely will play a key role if the team ends its 15-year playoff absence.
“He believes he’s a major league winning pitcher instead of just a major league pitcher,” Servais said. “There’s a difference. He expects to go out there every night and go deep in the game to win the ballgame for us.”