Welcome to the first installment of my Planting Flags series! I know, great name right? I was going to call it pitching tents, but I was trying to avoid additional restraining orders that could potentially hamper my 2019 in-season coverage.
So Planting Flags, what the hell is it about? Simple, I drop a spicy take regarding a player and then explain why this potential outcome is possible. Perhaps very possible. That said, we’re keeping these takes as spicy as possible, because let’s be frank, this post isn’t all that interesting if I say something that the general consensus agrees with. So, the goal here is be both spicy and responsible. Meaning I’m not going to make a statement that has a 1% chance of coming to fruition, so instead we’ll live in the neat 20%-30% range. Now without further ado, let’s make our statement.
The Padres’ Chris Paddack is a future ace.
It’s not lightly that I throw around the “future ace” label, but Paddack possesses a combination of skills that I believe will deliver him to that rarified air. Earlier in the offseason, MiLB.com took an in depth look at Paddack and his 2018 success coming off 2016 Tommy John surgery. For the article, Sam Dykstra interviewed Padres pitching coordinator Eric Junge, and he made an interesting, (though kind of obvious) statement. “We put an emphasis on walks, strikeouts, and weak contact...Everything else kind of takes a backseat. Those three things will translate into other good things if we keep our focus there…”.
Is this not exactly what you’d want to hear? Focus on throwing strikes, missing bats, and getting bad contact, the rest will take care of itself. Few have been able to define that trio on the mound the way Paddack did in 2018. As shown below in the Minor Graphs, Paddack managed to maintain walk rates under 3.5%, his K rate above 29.8%, and his batting average against below .208 for every 10 game stretch of the season. (CLICK THROUGH TO VIEW)
Armed with a fastball that tunnels well with his changeup, the latter of which plays up the combo earning the reputation of a double plus offering. His ability to throw from a similar arm speed, while delivering a pitch that drops down 8-10 miles per hour with different break has been a major driver of his success. He’s more than simply a product of his elite changeup however, armed with a fastball with plenty of action and velocity that climbed throughout the season, while showing the ability to work low in the zone with good downhill plane as well as locate up in the zone effectively with significant ride. His curveball lags behind the other two offerings in terms of effectiveness and development, but more on that later.
Watching footage of Paddack, it’s tough to decipher his fastball from his changeup until the last second. His advanced feel for both of these pitches is his greatest strength as a starter. He rarely wastes pitches or gets behind in counts, and has the plus secondary to get a needed swing in miss in a tight spot. His elite command and control shines through in his statline as well. Paddack walked just eight batters over 90 innings, consistently stealing strikes on the black with pinpoint accuracy. It stuck out so much in my viewing that I dug deep into his game logs, and figured out his strike looking percent was 19.9 percent. That’s paired with a 14.5 percent swinging strike rate, making it easy to see that Paddack combines the ability to miss bats, while also stealing strikes with elite control and pitch accuracy. Feel for ones pitches is the biggest differentiator between guys with “good stuff” and those that can harness said “stuff” and actually pitch.
Historically just how elite was Paddack’s 2018, where he posted a 35.3 K% and 2.4 BB% rate across 90 innings? So historical that no one has approached that combination of pinpoint control and swing and miss stuff in the last 11 seasons. That’s every level of the minors as well. The closest I spotted was Madison Bumgarner in 2008, who struck out 29.9 percent of batters he faced while only walking 3.8 percent. Bumgarner was in low-A in 2008, and spent the season facing the lowest possible level of full season competition. Paddack on the other hand faced hitters in the treacherous California League for 10 starts followed by 7 in the Texas league. Unprecedented success in two areas that are all but guaranteed to point to success at the next level.
Paddack knows how to pitch, and much of this elite feel derives from his solid mechanics. When it comes to mechanics I often lean on my colleague Lance Brozdowski to provide some commentary, and as the resident Padres guru, it seemed only right to go directly to his Padres Top 30 (Paddack ranked 4th) for his take. Here’s Lance’s breakdown; “He often uses a slight hesitation during his windup, sitting on his back leg with a high, active glove arm that allows him to rotate exceptionally well. Because he is more of a rotator than a driver off his back foot, his finish can appear slightly upright, but how he sits on his back leg fools the eye and allows his trunk to fly towards the plate and over his hips with an active front leg. His arm speed is exceptionally quick, creating the plus-plus action on his changeup from a high three-quarters arm slot.” This is a perfect description of Paddack’s mechanical composition, using his delivery and movements to accentuate his strengths, and create a very uncomfortable at bat for the opposition.
It would be irresponsible for me to wax poetic about Paddack’s strengths without acknowledging and discussing his risk factors in greater detail. First is Paddack’s health; he’s already undergone Tommy John surgery, robbing him of a chunk of his 2016 season and all of his 2017 campaign. San Diego was conservative with his innings and pitch counts in his return to game action, limiting him to 80 pitches or so throughout 2018. The plan worked and Paddack responded with one of the strongest statistical performances in over a decade. He continued building arm strength throughout the season, sitting 94-97 in some of his later starts and maxing at 98 mph.
With a full healthy off-season, Paddack has split time between his native Texas and the Padres complex in Peoria, preparing for a season on the cusp of the big leagues. With limited innings in Double-A (37 to be exact) I’d anticipate an assignment to the Padres new Double-A affiliate in Amarillo, with a late May promotion to Triple-A to follow. A post All-Star Break promotion is likely the best case scenario for both the Padres and Paddack.
The second concern is Paddack’s curveball, he’d been predominantly a two pitch guy during his pre-TJ days not showing much feel for his third pitch. At that point it was a self-described “loopy curveball in the 70 MPH range”. Over the course of 2018, the pitch showed improved shape and velocity, generating weak contact, swings and misses, and called strikes. While it still lags behind his fastball and changeup, it’s showed signs of being a legit third pitch, one with a little more projection than suspected pre-TJ. Let us not forget this is a pitcher with less than 200 professional innings, and one who missed a chunk of his age 20 season, and all of his age 21 year. Rarely do we see pitcher’s dominate the way Paddack did fully healthy let alone coming off of a significant injury, 20 months on shelf, and a limited pro track record. Bottom line, give Paddack time to develop his curveball.
His season started late in April, cruising through the Cal League before showing well against Double-A competition in the Texas League. A fiery competitor, Paddack takes hits and walks personally, attacking each proceeding batter like a vigilante carrying out the will of his vendetta. He’s also taken on the ritual of big league starters, wearing a suit complete with cowboy boots and hat in true Texas flare.
The mental side of the game and attention to detail is not lost on Paddack. The chip he carries on his shoulder is a positive, using it as a motivating factor to prove his doubters wrong. In a short conversation with his older brother Michael he made a telling comment, “He has accomplished a lot of special things so far. The most impressive part of all of it to me is that his performance and stats have only gotten better at each level he climbed.
“In my opinion he is absolutely going to be an ace. But not for the reasons most think. It will be to prove to every single person in or around baseball that genuinely thinks he won’t be an ace wrong. I have told him since day one ‘work until the ones who said you couldn’t, ask you how you did it’”.
I think we know where Michael falls on the “Is Chris Paddack a future ace?” debate. It’s hard to say I disagree, this is player that checks all the boxes. He has the stuff (plus fastball, elite secondary, improving third offering), command wizardry the likes of which is rarely approached in the minors, the mentality, mechanics, and body to reach the highest of heights. If I had to gamble my life’s work on one Padres pitching prospect winning a Cy Young, it would be Chris Paddack.
Closing: Chris Paddack is an ace.