LAKE ELSINORE, Calif — If you haven’t taken in the Chris Paddack experience in Lake Elsinore, you may be running out of time.
Last Tuesday, Paddack finished up an impressive first half and while it was clear from the first batter that he didn’t have his best stuff, the stat line told another story.
Paddack fell behind several hitters in the first few innings, failing to locate his fastball early in the count before getting hitters to swing at his vaunted changeup. However, when all was said-and-done, the box score showed what it has all season: five innings with one earned run allowed and nine strikeouts and just one walk. The run scored on a steal of home.
“[Paddack’s] fastball got up a little early [on] and he got banged around just a little bit,” said Storm pitching coach Pete Zamora, shortly after Paddack’s last outing.
“He has such a good changeup, that some of the teams come in looking for it and that’s why the fastball looks firmer because [hitters] are scared of it. He plays the fastball off of the change and the change off of the fastball.”
Paddack’s success in 2018 isn’t all that surprising — he opened his career in the Padres’ organization with a 0.64 ERA in three starts in Fort Wayne before requiring Tommy John surgery. What is surprising is that Paddack seemingly looks more dominant than he did in 2016. When Paddack came back in May, he hadn’t thrown a pitch in a regular season game in 21 months.
Generally, pitchers struggle with command after the procedure and it takes some time to find their way back into form. Cal Quantrill, who has struggled at times in San Antonio, is a prime example of a pitcher needing a little time to find themselves. Paddack has simply picked back up where he left off in 2016.
“[His stats] are ridiculous,” said Storm manager Edwin Rodriguez, shortly after Paddack’s last start. “He goes out, he attacks the hitters, he is very aggressive, even in tough situations.
“With his stuff and the way he attacks the strike zone and [he is] learning secondary pitches, it is only a matter of time before he is going to be in the big leagues and he’s going to be one of the best.”
Paddack generally attacks hitters with a fastball that sits from 90-94 mph and he dialed it up to 97 mph on one pitch to get a strikeout with a runner on second. His changeup — arguably the best pitch of any hurler in the organization, generated several poor swings on hitters with two strikes.
Paddack was helped out by Padres catcher Austin Hedges, who was in Lake Elsinore on a rehab assignment. While Hedges is there to get his timing back at the plate and behind the dish, he was able to impart some knowledge on the top prospect.
“[Last Tuesday] was the first time I met him,” said Chris Paddack, shortly after his last start on June 12. He asked me what my game plan was and he said ‘I want you to know this is your game and you know these hitters better than I do and I want you to know that just because I don’t throw down a sign, it doesn’t mean that you have to throw it.’
“Overall, he made me very comfortable and throwing to him made a huge difference.”
Digging into the numbers
As I mentioned earlier, Paddack’s strikeout-to-walk rate is in a class by itself. In 42.1 innings, he’s averaging less than a walk and striking out 15 batters per nine innings pitched. His 70 strikeouts are ninth in the Cal League, despite the fact that he’s thrown 20-30 innings less than the names in front of him. If he had enough innings to qualify, his 0.83 WHIP would lead the league and his 1.91 ERA would be second in the circuit.
When you dig into his stats, his ERA is actually higher than his FIP (1.36) and xFIP (1.41), thanks in part to opponents hitting .375 on batted balls. It isn’t too often that a player can say that a sub-2.00 ERA is inflated but Paddack has been as dominant as any pitcher in minor league baseball.
Despite being on a pitch count of 80-85, as Paddack told us in an interview last month, the 22-year-old has completed five innings in seven of his eight starts. He has never walked more than one batter in any start and has struck out at least seven each time out. He has three ten strikeouts games to his credit as well.
The development of his third pitch
While Paddack flashed a curveball shortly after being acquired by the Padres in 2016, it wasn’t really much more than a “show” pitch, designed to give hitters a different look in the second or third time through the order. Now, Paddack is working on making it a legitimate weapon.
Paddack talked last month about learning and refining the pitch at the Padres’ facility in Peoria, as he worked his way back from surgery. As the season has progressed, he has tried to mix in into his repertoire.
“He’s a strike-thrower, so he wants everything to be a strike. He wants the [curveball] to be a third weapon for him and we want him to be tenacious with it like he is with his other pitches,” said Zamora.
“He has had some outings where he has thrown it well. It’s coming and he’s improving and he likes to work. Chris Paddack can do anything with anything. I wouldn’t be surprised in a few years if that curveball was up to par with his changeup.”
Paddack didn’t throw the curve at all the first time through the lineup. Instead, he led with the fastball early, which he struggled to locate. In the third inning, Paddack started to throw his changeup early in the count — and started getting ahead of hitters. He then went to the fastball later in the count and got a few strikeouts with it. His changeup confounded hitters all night and was as good as advertised.
“I thought I was cutting the fastball more than usual,” said Paddack. This was my third time facing Rancho [Cucamonga] and they are a good hitting team — a good fastball hitting team.”
“Hedges helped calm me down and we used the changeup on the first pitch a lot. And we got more swing-and-misses than normal tonight.”
In the fourth inning, Paddack started to unveil the curve. The pitch was recorded at 74-76 mph and he was able to throw a couple for a strike, although it did not generate any swing-throughs. The pitch looked a little loopy and wasn’t as sharp as his change. Kyle Glaser of Baseball America, who was also at the game, reported that scouts attached a 40-grade to it.
“It will be a weapon,” said Rodriguez.
“Sometimes we forgot that he is just coming back. His fastball is a plus-fastball — his changeup is a plus-changeup. If he had a plus-curveball, he would be in the big leagues. His mechanics and delivery are very simple and he has the ability to repeat it.”
What lies ahead
Paddack will be representing the Storm in the Cal League All-Star Game Tuesday night in Lancaster. Paddack isn’t slated to pitch, perhaps a sign that a promotion is imminent. Or the organization may just want to get the top prospect a little extra rest. However, Paddack is happy to be on the field in Lake Elsinore.
“It’s been fun. [I’m] very blessed to get the opportunity to pitch for the Storm,” said Paddack. “This is my seventh start in this uniform and I have seen this team grow. When I first got here, we didn’t have a very good record and we have played better recently.”
But as a whole, it’s fun. I loved throwing to Austin Hedges and throwing to a big league catcher was something I have always wanted to do since I was a kid, so tonight was fun.”