Over his three MLB seasons, Chris Paddack has run the gamut from buzzy spring training standout; ROY candidate; and Opening Day starter all the way to the odd-man-out of the rotation; the estimated cost of shipping 225 pounds of Eric Hosmer from San Diego to New York City; and, most recently, a Minnesota Twin.
Tall In The Saddle
It was easy to get excited about Paddack as he embarked on his big league career as a 23-year-old in 2019. The 6’5″ right-hander skipped AAA ball entirely. “The Sheriff” rebounded from Tommy John surgery in 2016 to post a truly dominant 2018 season across 90 innings of A and AA ball, pitching his way to a tidy 2.10 ERA and .84 WHIP, along with 120 strikeouts and just eight walks!
That strong showing earned Paddack an invite to The Padres’ Spring Training in 2019, where he impressed with a 1.76 ERA, earning himself a spot in the San Diego starting rotation. Utilizing an arsenal consisting mainly of a mid-90s fastball and mid-80s changeup, Paddack rang up 153 strikeouts and just 31 walks over 140.2 innings of work. He combined excellent command along with swing and miss stuff, producing a strikeout to walk ratio of nearly five to one while posting chase rates and walk rates in the top 12 percent of MLB pitchers for the 2019 season.
The Harder They Fall
Following such a strong showing as a rookie, Paddack was named the Padres’ Opening Day starter for the 2020 season. However, the former eighth-round pick was unable to match his strong debut season during his sophomore campaign. Paddack maintained his strong command and stingy walk rates, but he was unable to strike out batters quite as often and struggled to keep the ball in the park.
As we can see in the chart above, Paddack’s rate of home runs allowed on fly balls hit nearly doubled, so even though he actually induced ground balls at a greater rate in 2020 than in 2019, he still allowed long balls at a much greater rate. The decrease in strikeouts was also concerning, but his walk rate remained elite, and 2020 was such a strange and short season that it’s tempting, if not just good sense, to write it off as too small of a sample size for any serious takeaways. In fact, I do disregard 2020 almost entirely for players for whom it appears to be an outlier, Brian Reynolds being perhaps the best example. We can also see in the previous table that Paddack’s HR/FB% regressed positively in 2021, while his walk rate continued unchanged. However, his strikeout rate continued to fall, and as we can see in the table below, his 2021 season casts his 2020 as the beginning of a trend rather than just a poor couple of months.
The chart above highlights Paddack’s increasing inability to generate strikeouts while allowing hard contact well above the league average rate of 35.4% over the last two seasons. I’ve included FIP both because of how odd it seems that Paddack’s FIP is lower in ’21 than ’19 (despite allowing almost three more hits per nine innings and striking out fewer batters, with a nearly identical walk rate) and because it hints at a more optimistic future than the rest of the data. Hope springs eternal, after all. Now, let’s take a closer at The Sheriff’s arsenal before coming to any conclusions.
A Fist Full of Fastballs
A few things jump out right away when viewing the tables above.
First, Chris Paddack really only throws two pitches: his four-seam fastball and changeup. He’s thrown curveballs roughly once an inning over his career.
Second, even though his four-seamer bounced back a bit across the board in 2021 after an abysmal 2020, the league still crushed it.
Third, the changeup was producing whiff rates similar to what it produced during 2019 but was still getting hit more than it had been in previous years.
Fourth, this is not a case of bad luck as the expected slugging and batting average rates are mostly in line with or worse than the observed rates.
And finally, that Paddack’s curveball was his most effective offering in 2021. It is very difficult to have success as a starting pitcher in the major leagues while only throwing two pitches, and the clear takeaway from this information is that Paddack relying on a 60/30 four-seam/changeup arsenal isn’t working anymore.
The Twins have made it known that they will run a six-man rotation at least for the first few weeks of the season, and that six-man rotation includes Chris Paddack, at least for now. However, when evaluating his performance, his pitch mix will be more interesting (and likely more important) than the surface results. It would be promising to see the curve featured closer to 20% of pitches, especially if it carries that 36% whiff rate. Before the trade from San Diego to Minnesota, Paddack appeared destined for a bullpen role to begin the season. Now that he’s with the Twins, he’ll get another chance to stick in the rotation, but a relief role may still be his future if he is unable to employ his curveball often and effectively.
Once Upon A Time In The Midwest
His first matchup of the season came at home vs. the Dodgers. He threw four innings and allowed three runs on six hits and zero walks, but it’s the pitch selection that matters most. Paddack’s pitch mix from his 2022 debut was: 63% four-seamer, 19.2% changeup, and 17.8% curveball. His mix in his second start of the year, on the road at Kansas City, was similar, with a slight uptick in curveball usage and a slight drop in changeup usage. The slight increase in curveball usage is encouraging. However, it came at the expense of his changeup rather than the fastball, which is not ideal. Paddack has struck out just seven batters over 11 innings to start the season, but he has yet to issue a walk.
I cannot recommend anything stronger than a “wait and see” approach right now for fantasy purposes. If Paddack is on your radar because you expect a career revival, are in AL-only, or deeper mixed leagues, then pay close attention to his mix of pitches. An uptick in his curve usage that brings his ratio closer to 50-50 fastball could be a positive sign that Paddack is evolving as a pitcher.
If Paddack is moved to the bullpen, I think he would be worth an immediate add in leagues that include holds or leagues that incorporate ratios such as K/BB. The Twins bullpen is not particularly strong (they did just trade their best reliever for Paddack), and it’s much easier for two-pitch hurlers to find success working in relief. I think it’s a situation worth monitoring simply due to Paddack’s success in 2019 and as a prospect before that.
It would be great for Paddack and the Twins if he is able to embrace this opportunity and thrive with his new team as a starting pitcher, but it’s neither the end of the world nor the end of his fantasy relevance if he ends up working in relief.
Photo by Nick Wosika/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@JustParaDesigns on Twitter)