James Paxton Returning to Kentucky for Senior Season

Aug. 18, 2009

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Kentucky left-handed pitcher James Paxton has opted to return to UK for his senior season and five of UK’s seven draftees have elected to attend Kentucky, head coach Gary Henderson announced Tuesday.

Paxton, a native of Ladner, British Columbia, was a supplemental first round pick (37th overall) of the Toronto Blue Jays in June, becoming the first UK player drafted in the first round since Joe Blanton in 2002. Paxton was one of only two players in the supplemental first round to not sign a professional contract, including independent league pitcher Tanner Scheppers, who does not have a deadline to negotiate a professional contract. Three players in the first round did not sign, including Aaron Crow, another independent league pitcher, and two high school talents.

“Kentucky is a great place,” Paxton said Tuesday afternoon. “I love the people there – the coaches, the staff and my teammates. I feel like with the Blue Jays, we just couldn’t come to an agreement and going back to Kentucky is going to be a great option for me. I am going to get a lot better working with the coaches there and hopefully have a great season and year at Kentucky.”

A 6-foot-4, 215-pounder, Paxton was the highest drafted college player to choose to return to school in the 2009 MLB Draft. Paxton joins Tennessee pitcher Bryan Morgado and Arizona State pitcher Josh Spence as the only college players drafted in the first three rounds to return to school.

“(James coming back to school) helps a lot; how much it helps for the season you never know until you get to the season, but it is clearly a tremendous statement for the program,” Henderson said. “James’ decision speaks to the value that he places on his experience at Kentucky. It is a statement to the kids that are coming in and it continues to be a statement about the number of kids we have had come back for their fourth season here.”

Five UK incoming freshman were also drafted and opted to attend Kentucky, including right-hander Jordan Cooper (17th round), left-hander Taylor Rogers (37th round), right-hander Sam Kidd (39th round), catcher Luke Maile (43rd round) and freshman wide receiver/outfielder Brian Adams (45th round).

“To have all of those guys on campus is very exciting,” Henderson said. “To have the opportunity to establish some depth in the program and the pitching staff, like we had from 2006-08 is going to be very important. That is the first thing it does, is it creates some options.  And not only that, but we have several quality athletes coming in on the pitching staff that are going to give us a chance to get back to where we are supposed to be in the conference and in the postseason.”

Paxton finished the 2009 season as UK’s Friday night starter, ranking third in the NCAA in strikeouts per nine innings (13.2), fanning 115 in 78.1 innings. In 13 starts last year, Paxton totaled a 5-3 record and a 5.86 ERA. Paxton walked just 20 and allowed opponents to hit for a .266 average. With 115 punchouts, Paxton ranks fifth-best in the 105-year history of the Kentucky program, marking just the 10th player in program history to eclipse 100 strikeouts in a season. Paxton, southpaw Chris Rusin (108 strikeouts in 94.1 IP)  and freshman right-hander Alex Meyer (80 strikeouts in 59.2 IP) teamed to help UK set a new season strikeout record, as the UK staff fanned 523 in 2009, breaking the previous record of 502 team strikeouts in 1995.

“The coaches at Kentucky have been really good to me,” Paxton said. “They have helped me a lot, mentoring me and teaching me the game of baseball. It has been a great experience at Kentucky and that made it a lot easier to come back for my senior year, knowing that I would get to work with such a good coaching staff again.”

Paxton’s ERA was inflated in 2009 courtesy of three outings that saw the lefty allow five or more runs. Without those three outings, Paxton totaled a 5-0 record and a 3.95 ERA in 10 starts, hurling 66 innings with 101 strikeouts and a .218 opponent batting average. Seven times in 2009, Paxton struck out 10 or more hitters in a game.

In the last three years, five UK players have been drafted and opted to return to Kentucky for their fourth season. All five players have seen their draft status improved by the decision, including Chris Rusin, who was drafted in the 23rd round of the 2008 MLB Draft before returning to school and becoming a fourth-round selection in 2009. Slugging catcher Sean Coughlin was picked in the 42nd round in 2006 and after an All-American season in 2007, was selected in the 13th round. In 2008, three Kentucky players improved their draft status. Kentucky All-Americans Sawyer Carroll and Collin Cowgill, along with hard-throwing pitcher Scott Green each moved up at least 12 rounds in the draft. Carroll was drafted in the 18th round in 2007 and the third round in 2008. Cowgill, a Lexington, Ky., native, was drafted 29th round in 2007 but the fifth round in 2008. Green, a Louisville, Ky., native, was drafted 15th round in 2007 but third round in 2008.

With the return of Paxton and talented sophomore right-hander Alex Meyer in 2010, UK’s weekend rotation is experienced and talented.

“What it does is give you some structure,” Henderson said. “It gives you two guys back in familiar roles with experience who have been through the conference and know what to expect. Both get a chance to improve on last year’s performances.”