Paddack shaky vs. Yankees, still seeking feel for changeup

May 15th, 2024

MINNEAPOLIS -- There was a clear focus for this spring: slider, slider, slider. After each Grapefruit League outing, he’d talk about the maximum velocity he’d hit with the pitch that day, and where that was with respect to his 87 mph goal.

And perhaps he lost some feel for his real bread-and-butter pitch along the way.

Paddack was decidedly not at his best against the Yankees, who tagged him for 12 hits (matching his career high) and five runs in five innings as part of a 5-1 loss on Tuesday at Target Field, marking the Twins’ first loss in a series opener since April 19.

But in the bigger picture -- looking past a really good Bronx Bombers lineup and some defensive miscues behind Paddack that cost him a few times -- the right-hander continues to be encouraged with the progress he’s needed this year to regain the feel for his changeup, which has been his go-to pitch throughout his career but has eluded him for much of this season.

“He's used to it being his best pitch,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “Right now, I don't think it's his best pitch, but it's something he's going to continue to work towards and try to grab on to. Because the best version of Chris Paddack has an above-average changeup, one that gets swings and misses and he gets hitters looking real bad on.”

Paddack threw 34 changeups on Tuesday, his most in any outing this season -- with decidedly mixed results. He only got three whiffs on 18 swings against the pitch, and five of the 12 hits he allowed came against the changeup -- including the 114 mph homer that Giancarlo Stanton pounded into the bullpen in left-center.

But the number that Paddack looks at with that pitch is, instead, the amount that he’s able to actually get it in the strike zone, because that’s when he feels his arsenal works at its best -- changeup down, but actually in the zone, so that hitters can’t eliminate it altogether like the Twins typically do against, say, Kevin Gausman’s splitters.

“I get my swing-and-miss in-zone with that pitch,” Paddack said. “First couple starts of the year, I wasn’t getting the chase. I think it was 35% in-zone. My go-to is 55-60% in-zone with that pitch. It opens up a lot for me.”

Along those lines, Paddack’s rate of hitting the strike zone with his changeup had steadily climbed through the years, from 43.1% during his 2019 rookie season to 65.5% last season, when he dominated out of the bullpen in the playoffs.

This year, he’d been down to 40%, the lowest of his career. On Tuesday, 16 of the 34 he threw were in the zone for a season-high 47%. Paddack will take that, especially as he continues to gear up for lineups that perhaps won’t hit him as hard as the Yankees’ particularly productive offense.

“It's there. We've seen it before,” Baldelli said. “I like that he's bringing that pitch into the game. It's the only way he's going to get it the way he wants it.”

The action on the pitch is actually where Paddack wants it -- and the changeup is perhaps moving a bit more than it has in the past, with a tick more vertical and horizontal depth. The other pieces appear to be there, too, as pointed out to Paddack by the other pitchers with whom he debriefed after he exited Tuesday’s game. Bit by bit, he’s found himself putting things together over the past few starts.

“They were like, ‘Man, your stuff’s biting. Your curveball’s there. It’s sharp. Your fastballs at the top are great. Changeups below,’” Paddack recounted. “There’s a lot of positives to take away.”

Paddack didn’t get much help from a sloppy outfield defense behind him, with Willi Castro mishandling a first-inning flare into the sun by Juan Soto, making a mental error on a throw on a sacrifice fly in the second inning and seeing a two-run double by Alex Verdugo go just out of his reach in the fourth.

They could get some needed help over the weekend with the expected return of , who will start a rehab assignment with Triple-A St. Paul on Wednesday.

“I don't anticipate us playing like that on the defensive side of the ball tomorrow,” Baldelli said. “We have to be sharper than that. Paddack, he battled out there today. I think he made some good pitches. He did a fine job.”