LAKE ELSINORE, Calif. — On April 30th, 2018, RHP Chris Paddack picked up right where he left off 21 months ago; making opposing batters look absolutely stupid.
The supremely talented starting pitcher started a game for the TinCaps on July 18, 2016, and per usual, he dominated. Shortly after, he hit the disabled list and ultimately needed Tommy John surgery.
While Paddack’s progress was stymied temporarily, the 22-year-old Texas native has shown absolutely no ill effects from the procedure in the early stages of 2018. After another dominant outing Saturday night, Paddack has not allowed an earned run in 16 innings for the Storm while racking up 26 strikeouts against one walk. His return to form after a very long layoff has been one of the bright spots in the system thus far this season.
We caught up with Chris Paddack shortly after his first start of the year, as he gave insight into his long recovery and the development of a curveball.
MadFriars: I guess the million dollar question is how is everything feeling after your first start?
Chris Paddack: It feels good, man. [With] the adrenaline after the first start, I wasn’t really feeling much, just excited to get back out there after the surgery. It’s been a long journey but I am excited to get back out there for the rest of the season and try to stay healthy.
When you look at your first start after the injury, you go six innings for the first time in your pro career. I know you are on a pitch count but was the goal to work that deep into the game?
Paddack: Yeah, I am on a pitch count all year; they haven’t really told me what my pitch count is. I think it’s 80 to 85. So I just went out there and told myself to just go out there and compete and control what I can control and everything else will fall into place.
So I wasn’t going out there like “oh I get to throw six innings or five innings,” I go out there and do my thing and try to let everything fall into place. But yeah, that was my first career start to have six innings under my belt, so that was a good feeling. I couldn’t tell you how many times I went over that start in my head since surgery.
Whenever I have talked to players who are coming back from surgery, they always talk about how the command is always the thing that comes back last.
But after watching your first start, your command looked excellent and you didn’t walk anyone. How was your command when you pitched in games in extended spring and do you think your command is as good as it was prior to the surgery?
Paddack: I think [my command] is actually better now. I developed a curveball through surgery and all that. I’ve had a lot of time to not only to develop [a curveball] but get more mature about the game and learn about different things that work for me.
Going back to my other interview with MILB.com, I had two older, veteran guys that were on the Padres in Colin Rea, who is actually coming off of Tommy John as well and Robbie Erlin who came off Tommy John. So having those guys to kind of piggyback off of and ask them questions like “what did you do to execute nine months post-surgery?”
So having guys at the top level and having someone to kind of show you the way — it was pretty cool to have those guys step down and talk to us younger players. I got a chance to work with Ben Fritz, our rehab coordinator, especially when I threw Monday through Sunday, we had a lot of days to work on command and focus on the curveball.
When you go through the process of rehabbing, what is your schedule like? How often are you pitching in games and were you able to get into a regular routine?
Paddack: Yeah, I am a big routine guy. I have always been that way, especially as a starter. The best way to put it is: the five days that I am not pitching, that’s where I’ve told myself this is time to get better. On the sixth day is when I get to have my fun. That sixth day is where you see your hard work pay off over the last five days.
For me, over those 21 months, I told myself if I come out of this and do everything right I can come back stronger and better than I was before.
Were you able to have a typical off-season, or were you still doing work to progress in your recovery?
Paddack: That’s actually my favorite question that everyone asks: how was the rehab process? For me, personally, no one wants to get hurt but I was very lucky to get hurt at the time I did. As bad as that sounds, I had surgery on August 15, 2016, and I missed a little bit of 2016 at the end of the season.
But if you really think about it, 21 months since surgery, I only missed one full season. There are some guys who have surgery in spring, I feel that those guys are rushed to get back for the next spring training. Typically, Tommy John surgery [recovery] is 12-16 months, depending on your age. I feel like older guys have a little bit more to say about ‘hey, I only get one more chance,’ and I want to get back out there as soon as I can.
But for me, I got to have a normal-offseason at home after surgery. I had rehab with the doctor that did my surgery. My brother lived in Dallas at the time, so I got to stay in the Dallas area with my brother. Then in 2017, I was in Arizona but I got to have a normal off-season. I knew I wasn’t going to be rushed.
[The Padres] told me there was going to be no rush. [They told me] you are going to miss all of 2017 and depending on how you feel, you might miss a little of 2018. There was never a point where [I felt like] I had to get back. [The Padres] told me whenever you are ready, let us know. Like I said, I was very fortunate to have surgery when I did because I only missed a year-and-a-half of baseball, not two full seasons.
During the rehab process was there anything you did outside of baseball just to kind of take your mind off of baseball?
Paddack: That’s another question that I like getting asked. Our rehab group was a really positive and energized group. No one wants to be in rehab but whenever you have a group of guys that you connect with and that keeps you focused, with two big league guys who took time out of their day and took us out to dinner, talked to us and hung out [with us] outside of the field. For us, that’s big just because there explaining to us what they did and what they went through in the minor leagues and this and that.
But at the end of the day, there were some negative thoughts in my head. That’s just part of [the recovery]. That’s when I brought my family closer or I’d FaceTime with my family or fly them out just to get my mind off baseball or “what if.”
At the end of the day, we had such a good, positive rehab group, we looked forward to going to the field every day and get better. We had Sunday’s off, so that was nice to have 24 hours off without picking up a baseball to hang out or go to the lake or whatever the situation was, so that was good.
In your first start, I did you see you mix in the curve a little bit more. Is that something that you are using the second or third time through the order, or are you looking to use that right away as a new weapon?
Paddack: You know, I always go out and attack with the same game plan I have always gone to. Until a team shows me that they can beat me with my stuff, then I will switch my game plan. I have always been a fastball/change-up kind of guy. I had a curveball in 2016 and also in 2015 when I got drafted but it was never a dominant pitch — it was more of a show pitch like you said, something to show the second or third time during the lineup just to show the hitters that I have a third pitch.
But now, after my first outing and me being able to work it for the past 21 months, its given me positive feedback and that curveball is actually my third pitch and not just a show pitch. But I honestly think that my changeup is not there; its been more up in the zone. I’ve gotten some ground balls but [the changeup] is my strikeout pitch and it wasn’t getting swing-and-misses as much as I would like, so I went to curveball more.
So your approach when you pitch is to throw the fastball for a strike and then put the hitter away with a changeup? From what I could tell in your first start watching online, it looked to move like a two-seam. Is that the type of fastball you throw?
Paddack: I don’t really throw a two-seam, I throw a four-seam but sometimes it cuts and sometimes it runs. It just kind of depends on my mechanics and delivery. I am very excited to have a third pitch; that was my main goal coming out of rehab was to show the coordinators and front office that I used this time productively and I worked on a third pitch.
Are you looking at success being defined on performance or is just a matter of staying healthy?
Paddack: My personal goal is to make it to the big leagues by the end of the year. That’s everybody, though. Realistically, my goal is to stay healthy and show the front office and the Padres that I can throw every sixth day and not have any setbacks. For me, that’s huge because I just started [pitching again].
As a starter, it isn’t necessarily about ERA because you are going to have bad starts but if you can show them that you can throw 200 innings at the big league level, you are going to have one of those spots.
At the end of the day, my biggest goal is just to stay healthy, do what I can control what I can control and just do my thing on the field and stay out of trouble off the field and stay focused.
So for now, you will be throwing every sixth day?
Paddack: Yeah. And I think that’s awesome because not only do you have more time to rest but I don’t have to throw a ball the day after a start. That’s good because I am coming off of surgery and rest is key. What I learned throughout the whole rehab process is that rest is important.