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Deep Dive: Could Chris Paddack get even better?

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Paddack has the ability to make his pitches work off each other in a very effective way.

San Diego Padres v Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images

Chris Paddack is taking San Diego Padres fans and Major League Baseball by storm. His last start, a 1-0 victory over the Seattle Mariners, turned a lot of heads. After being one of the better pitchers in Spring Training, he made an impressive leap from AA ball to the starting rotation, where many are now considering him the staff ace.

Paddack is currently 14th in K-BB rate (22.2%), top-10 in league-adjusted run prevention (40 -ERA), and is well ahead of the rest of baseball in WHIP (0.67).

There are a couple of knocks on his metrics, mainly a crazy low BABIP (.138) and a mostly unsustainable 80.3% strand rate, while FIP indicates he’s actually pitching a little over one earned run per game worse that his ERA is telling us. Even with that being the case, Paddack’s FIP figures him at 2.86, which is still pretty great.

Paddack is mainly a fastball-changeup pitcher which accounts for nearly 90% of what he throws (58%/32%). It’s working, so I’m not about to suggest he start altering his pitch selection.

Pitch Info’s pitch value metric has the changeup rated as his best pitch (13th overall) and his fastball is rated 11th. His curveball hasn’t been producing the same results, rated 24th-worst in baseball right now.

The changeup is his bread and butter and appears most often when Paddack needs a strike. And he typically gets what he wants. He lands the most strikes with the pitch as well as drawing the highest swing and whiff rates. He produces a CSW (called strikes plus whiffs) ratio of 35.3%, which is excellent, especially since the 2019 league average is 20.8%.

Paddack employs an unconventional grip on his changeup (which helped coin the name ‘vulcan change’) and it’s clearly worked wonders for him. Eno Sarris of The Athletic has all the details in this great writeup earlier this April.

Let’s take a quick look at some of these ‘vulcan changeups’.

I’m an advocate for developing tunneling skills but they certainly aren’t a necessity when it comes to pitching success, but let’s dig into the numbers anyway.

Paddack’s fastball and change release distance on average is roughly 4 inches apart (release distance measures in a three-dimensional way and takes extension into account). Varied release points can make or break tunnel development.

We can see in this graphic from Baseball Savant which shows Paddack’s release points during his last start. There is clear separation between the two pitches.

We can also see that the curveball is pretty close in terms of trajectory but he has a tendency to release it a little bit early. That early release gives a hitter a couple of extra tenths of a millisecond to commit to the pitch. Considering it takes .4 seconds for a fastball to reach home, that’s a slight advantage.

Before I get too far into tunneling, I want to show an example of how certain pitches might not work in tandem depending on which side of the plate the hitter is on.

Here is the view for a left-handed hitter (Mallex Smith) facing a fastball and changeup where a tunnel is present and separates right after the commit point (about halfway down the trajectory).

If you look at this sequence from the other side of the plate, you see something totally different. There is no tunneling whatsoever from this perspective.

Now let’s move on and look at some numbers. The chart below uses data pulled from Baseball Prospectus’ pitch tunneling stats. To better understand what this information says, check out this post which details each measurement but I’ll do my best to paraphrase what this means.

RelDist is measured in inches and tells how far away, on average, the release point between the two pitches are. PreMax is the average distance between the two pitches when they reach the commit point, in inches. You want these as close as possible. PreMaxTime is a little more complex but it essentially tells us how quickly the balls separate in flight. This number will always be greater than .150 seconds (that’s roughly how long it takes a pitch to reach the commit point) and the closer you get to .150, the later your pitches separate in the tunnel.

PlateDist is how far back-to-back pitches are once they reach home plate. FTimeDiff is basically a different way of telling velocity difference in milliseconds. And PlatePreRatio is the ratio of PreMax and Plate Dist to see how much further apart the pitches are at the plate in relation to how far apart they are at the commit point.

Still with me? Okay.

All of Paddack’s metrics for his changeup and fastball are better than average except for his release points and distance apart at the plate to RHH (reference the pitch trajectory charts above). The data above slightly favors the combo to lefties but not by much.

Here’s an example of the type of tunneling Paddack can get with his fastball and changeup to left-handed hitter Joey Votto.

The plate distance figures can create issues should the pitches be traveling at close speeds but since the velocity difference between his change and fastball is a good 10 MPH, this does’t affect the effectiveness of his tunnel.

To further elaborate, if you have a fastball at 95 MPH and, say, a slider at 91 MPH, the pitches could become easier to hit when you consider hitter timing. Despite the fact that both pitches behave differently, if you can get good separation at the plate, the hitter will have a better chance to make contact.

One thing I’d like to see adjustments for is his curveball and fastball tandem. As we saw in the release point graphic above, they tend to come out of the same arm slot. BP’s RelDist backs that up (about 1.6 inches on average).

What’s making it hard for Paddack to use these two within a tunnel is that the PreMax numbers throw the whole thing off. Paddack has something of what The Athletic writer Joe Schwarz coined a ‘bunny-hop’ on his curve which makes it pop out of the tunnel early and makes it identifiable.

The blue is his curveball, red are fastballs and green is his changeup.

We know its not tunneling well but if you look at the catchers view, you can see the two pitches I have marked with a black ‘x’ could look good together if perhaps Paddack throws his fastball a bit higher. The drop out of the tunnel would be devastating to hitters.

Observe this overlay to get a better idea of how the curve and fastball behave for Paddack.

Could this be part of the reason that his curve isn’t working well (according to pitch value)? It’s hard to say because we don’t know if Paddack is even trying to tunnel his pitches.

If he can somehow get these two pitches to work together in a more deceptive way, we could have a serious Cy Young contender on our hands in the future.

As I said, Paddack’s approach is clearly working for him and I’m not about to advocate changing anything. We know now that he has the ability to be a tunneling master, if that’s even something he’s working at.

Even removing all of what we’ve spoken about, we have to remember this is early in the season and these numbers will take time to stabilize. As I pointed out earlier, some of his metrics (BABIP, FIP) are indicating that regression could be coming. Until that happens, Paddack will continue to neutralize hitters and help keep the Padres in playoff contention.