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Baseball Is About to Fall in Love With San Diego’s Chris Paddack

The rookie ace has been electric. If he can find the durability to match his stuff, he’ll also continue two proud baseball traditions: young hotshot starter and flame-throwing Texan.

AP Images/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The most interesting Texan pitcher in baseball is slated to take the mound at Dodger Stadium on Tuesday night. No, not Clayton Kershaw, this guy.

Chris Paddack is a 23-year-old rookie right-hander for the San Diego Padres, and he’s got more juice than an Ocean Spray factory. It wasn’t always so. An eighth-round draft pick of the Miami Marlins out of high school in 2015, Paddack found his way to the Padres organization a year later in exchange for three months of closer Fernando Rodney. A month after that, in August 2016, Paddack underwent Tommy John surgery and missed all of the 2017 season.

Since his return, Paddack has experienced a meteoric rise in profile. Paddack posted a 2.10 ERA and 120 strikeouts in 90 innings across High-A and Double-A in 2018, landing him at no. 37 of Baseball Prospectus’s top 101 heading into 2019. Paddack’s teammate, shortstop Fernando Tatís, Jr., was the big-name rookie in camp this spring, and the bulk of prospect-centric questions focused on whether he’d start the season in the majors. He did, but Paddack, a dark horse to make the Opening Day rotation, made sure the Padres knew he was ready too. In five preseason starts, Paddack struck out 24, walked three, and allowed just three earned runs over 15 1/3 innings, and went west along with Tatís and 23 other Padres.

Despite having made just seven career starts above A-ball, Paddack started pitching like an ace immediately. Through his first seven big league outings, he’s 3-1 with a 1.55 ERA, second to Milwaukee’s Zach Davies by one-hundredth of a run. Paddack has struck out 30.7 percent of the batters he’s faced and walked 6.7 percent of opposing hitters. Justin Verlander, as a point of comparison, has a strikeout rate of 30.6 and a walk rate of 6.3 this season. Overall, Paddack is holding opponents to a .130/.193/.196 line; his opponent batting average is the lowest among qualified starters by more than 30 points.

Paddack throws three pitches, the prettiest of which is a gorgeous slow curve that recalls the young Kershaw’s Public Enemy No. 1.

Paddack pitches off a mid-90s fastball that has great rise and arm-side movement, providing the perfect counterpoint to his curveball. The difference between the two pitches, on average, is about 20 miles per hour, nine and a half inches of horizontal break, and 20 inches of vertical break. Hitters simply can’t be expected to cover that much real estate on a given pitch, particularly with that great a speed differential. Small wonder that even a hitter like Robinson Canó, who’s seen just about everything in his 15-year career, could offer only a token poke in self-defense of Paddack’s curveball.

But only one in every 10 pitches Paddack throws is Uncle Charlie. His out pitch is his changeup, which might already be one of the best in baseball, and clocks in at about 10 miles an hour slower than his fastball, with more pronounced arm-side movement.

Good starting pitchers develop a changeup to disrupt batters’ timing and to attack opposite-handed batters. A right-handed pitcher’s breaking ball moves away from right-handed hitters, encouraging them to swing at something that won’t still be there by the time the bat goes through the zone—it’s like pulling a string away from a kitten who’s about to pounce. But right-handed breaking balls in the zone move in on left-handed hitters, which makes them easy to pull for power. One way for a right-handed pitcher to attack a left-handed hitter with off-speed stuff is to throw a breaking ball so far inside that it looks like a strike at first, but then ends up out of the zone at the hitter’s feet. This is risky, because a badly executed back-foot breaking ball is likely to end up in the seats. Therefore most pitchers choose to throw changeups, which break away from opposite-handed batters.

Paddack will, as is traditional, use his changeup to tease lefties. He’s thrown 109 of them this year to left-handed batters, who have swung and missed 16 times and are slugging just .194 against the pitch. Paddack’s changeup tumbles off the fingers of his right hand one-by-one, generating rotation the same way a Harlem Globetrotter would turn a spinning basketball on his finger. As a result, the changeup has enough movement that he can essentially use it like a back-foot breaking ball to right-handed hitters.

Paddack has shown right-handed hitters his changeup 88 times this year, and they’ve swung and missed 26 times, with just a .091 slugging percentage to show for it.

Through seven big league starts, Paddack has performed like an ace. The next step for him is to prove he can handle an ace’s workload. Being a no. 1 starter is not just about avoiding injury. It’s also about holding up for 30 starts and 200 innings a year, and before this season, Paddack had appeared in just 37 games and thrown 177 2/3 innings in his entire professional career. His career high in innings at any professional level is the 90 innings he threw in 17 starts last season.

Even after Tommy John surgery, there’s no particular reason to worry about Paddack’s durability, but managing usage and staving off injury are part and parcel of developing pitchers these days. So far the Padres have used off days and spot starters to give Paddack extra rest between starts in the hopes of avoiding the kind of debate over a late-season shutdown that the Nationals faced with Stephen Strasburg in 2012, and the Mets with Matt Harvey in 2015.

Paddack is an exceptionally talented pitcher, but that alone isn’t what makes him so interesting. Even great pitchers can be boring sometimes, but Paddack goes about the game with incredible style and panache, and because of his Texan roots, Paddack is the heir to one of baseball’s great traditions.

Whether due to population size, baseball-friendly weather, or there just being something in the water, the Lone Star State counts power pitchers as one of its greatest exports. The two most famous examples, Nolan Ryan and Roger Clemens, are first and third on the all-time strikeout list with more than 10,000 K’s between them. Active pitchers from Dallas-area high schools alone have combined for six Cy Young Awards (three for Kershaw, two for Corey Kluber, one for Jake Arrieta), and Noah Syndergaard could one day push that number to seven or more. The hardest-throwing pitcher in baseball, Cardinals closer Jordan Hicks, is from Houston, and the top pitching prospect in baseball, Forrest Whitley, is from outside of San Antonio.

Paddack, born in Austin and raised in nearby Cedar Park, talks sort of like a conglomerate of Texas high school movie quarterbacks, like if Mike Winchell had Lance Harbor’s haircut and self-confidence.

Paddack showed up for his first regular-season start dressed like he’d just wrapped up a three-episode guest run as a shady real estate developer on Dallas: boots (which are common in MLB clubhouses), cowboy hat, dark dress shirt, and pink tie (which aren’t).

A couple of dozen of Paddack’s friends and family showed up for the game, and about half wore wide-brimmed hats of their own. Paddack’s on-field presence is a grab bag of interesting affectations. Any one of his high socks, curly mullet, or propensity for big post-strikeout celebrations would be enough on its own to identify Paddack to casual fans, but he’s bringing the whole menu. He’s a kolache stuffed with sausage, egg, cheese, onion, bacon, and jalapeno.

Last week, the Mets came to Petco Park shortly after first baseman Pete Alonso was named NL Rookie of the Month for April. Paddack took some time the day before his start to cut a promo on Alonso: “Does he deserve [the Rookie of the Month award]? Absolutely. But I’m coming for him. We’ll see Monday who the top dog is.”

Talking that big a game carries with it the risk of humiliation, but Paddack had the best night of his young career, striking out 11 (including Alonso twice) and allowing just five baserunners over 7 2/3 scoreless innings, which was good enough to outduel reigning Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom for the win. After each strikeout, Paddack retucked the front of his jersey as he paced a lap of the mound, either to convey the image of an Old West gunslinger adjusting a comically large belt buckle, or because it was the only way to keep his self-confidence from bursting out of his shirt.

Paddack’s commitment to maximalism is refreshing in a sport that still encourages players—particularly young players—to stay in their lane. But if Paddack isn’t acting like he’s been there before, it’s understandable because he really hasn’t; the month Alonso was named top NL Rookie is the only full month Paddack has spent in the majors.

There’s nothing quite like a young hotshot starting pitcher, a rookie ace who appears as if from nowhere with ungodly stuff, precocious pitchability, and the self-confidence that only youth can grant. Baseball has fallen in love, at one time or another, with José Fernández, Strasburg, Harvey, Syndergaard, and countless others before them. Paddack is already this year’s version of that archetype. Most rookies get their first taste of big league action and still have to make adjustments. It’d be a shame if anything about Paddack changed.