Chris Paddack’s initial test of 2018 came on April 30 when he made his first start in nearly two years. He passed with flying colors. Paddack threw six shutout innings that night in San Bernardino — the first time he pitched that deep into a game in his professional career. The recovery from a major surgery seemed to go as smoothly as possible.
“[With] the adrenaline after the first start, I wasn’t really feeling much — just excited to get back out there after the surgery,” Paddack told MadFriars a day after his opening start of the season. “It’s been a long journey, but I am excited to get back out there and stay healthy.”
That outing seemed to foreshadow what lied ahead: pure dominance that seemed unfathomable all while looking incredibly easy. Paddack made the California League — a notorious hitter’s circuit — look like his personal playground. The right-hander made ten starts for Lake Elsinore, pitching to a 2.24 ERA which was inflated due to some bad luck with batted balls. His strikeout-to-walk ratio was nearly 21-to-one. He struck out 83 in 52.1 innings. He was clearly too good for High-A.
“[His] stats are ridiculous,” said Lake Elsinore Storm manager Edwin Rodriguez after one of Paddack’s starts in June.
“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 went up to Double-A San Antonio and didn’t miss a beat. Overall, he pitched to a sparkling 2.10 ERA in 17 starts between the two stops, throwing ninety innings, striking out 120 batters while walking eight hitters all year.
Yes, eight hitters in nearly 100 innings.
Paddack’s dominance earned him the MadFriars Pitcher of the Year award. Last year’s winner, Joey Lucchesi spent most of the year in the big leagues. Paddack could follow suit in 2019.
“There’s no reason I can’t make the big leagues in 2019,” said Paddack via telephone, after adding another award to his trophy case.
His path back from Tommy John surgery, on the surface, seemed easy. Despite missing nearly two years of action, Paddack picked up exactly where he left off and showed why he was one of the most exciting players in the entire organization.
“The year I had isn’t surprising. I put in a lot of work this season [to get back]. In some ways [the injury and recovery] was a blessing in disguise. It made me look at the bigger picture.
“It was a little frustrating being shut down at the end of the season, but the organization is looking out for me and has my best interests in mind. The main goal was to stay healthy this year, and I was able to do that.”
Paddack didn’t have any lingering effects in his recovery process, and his command — especially of his fastball — look stronger post-op. He averaged less than one walk per nine innings pitched — a career-best over a full season.
“I actually think my [command] is better now,” said Paddack. My velocity also jumped up about 3-4 mph on my fastball.
“Over the last few years, I learned a lot about myself. No one wants to be in rehab, but we had a good group of guys like Robbie Erlin, Colin Rea and Erik Johnson that really helped. They would take us out to dinner, or we [the minor league rehab group] would take them out. That experience really helped a lot. Being away from the game during that time period showed me how much I missed it.”
Paddack went into 2018 unsure of how many innings he was going to be allowed to throw. Coming into 2018, he had never thrown more than 45.1 innings in a professional season.
“The organization didn’t give me an exact amount, but when I made goals going into this season, I targeted 90-100. I knew that I had a strict 80 pitch count for every game. Sometimes I wanted to go deeper — maybe get one more inning or a few extra pitches, but everything was done to keep me healthy.”
After being promoted to San Antonio, he got the chance to pitch in front of his family. Paddack, who was born in Austin, had as many as 80 friends and family in the stands when he started. While in Double-A, he saw a bit of a dip in his strikeouts but pitched to a 1.90 ERA, while walking just four in 37.2 innings. It didn’t matter what level he was at; he just continued to dominate.
“He was pretty much as advertised,” said San Antonio Missons’ broadcaster Mike Saeger.
“Sometimes guys get played up in the lower levels and don’t quite perform as well when they hit Double-A; Chris is not one of those guys. [He] was fearless on the mound. I wish we had him for the [Texas League] championship series.”
Paddack accomplished many of the goals he set for himself — he dominated on the mound, reestablished himself as one of the top prospects in the game and he seems like a virtual lock to be added to the 40-man roster. In addition to our Pitcher of the Year award, Paddack also was the MiLB.com staff pick for Pitcher of the Year. He knows he needs to do more.
Paddack learned a new curveball while rehabbing and he threw it in games to give hitters a different look as he pitches deeper into the game.
“My [curve] getting better is a big goal for me going into 2019,” said Paddack. “I know I need a third pitch; it’s something to show the second or third time through the order. I have been working on it throughout the season.
“I want to have confidence in it. I really started to feel confident with the curve at the end of the year.”
For now, he will enjoy a normal off-season and prepare for 2019 spring training. He has started playing catch and won’t throw a bullpen until the 1st of next year. Paddack is already planning for the next step.
“The talent in this organization is pretty special, but I am looking forward to spring training. I am blessed to have this opportunity. My family motivates me to get me to the big leagues.
“As a kid, I looked up to guys like Clayton Kershaw and Mike Trout, and maybe I can be some kid’s role model.
“Why not me?”