Inside a cubbyhole in a losing clubhouse, the black cowboy hat rested beside a pair of auburn boots. The garments belonged to San Diego Padres rookie pitcher Chris Paddack. He had worn them to Chavez Ravine on Tuesday, as he does before every start, dressing like a 23-year-old gunslinger from Texas. Now he stood in front of the accouterments, humbled after a 6-3 defeat to Clayton Kershaw, his first outing against the Dodgers.
“I got beat tonight,” Paddack said. “That’s pretty much it.”
Paddack arrived at Dodger Stadium with a 1.55 earned-run average, the second-lowest mark for any starter with at least 40 innings. He had yielded seven earned runs in seven starts. On Tuesday, he learned the perils in facing the National League West’s best offense. Paddack gave up six runs in 4-2/3 innings, serving up a pair of two-run homers in the third inning, one to Joc Pederson and a second to Cody Bellinger.
The evening dented the resume of Paddack, who has made waves as one of baseball’s brightest, brashest new arrivals. He dresses with country flair. His fastball crackles with life and his changeup tortures with movement. He has been open about his desire to be one of the sport’s best, speaking with a level of candor that stands out in baseball’s buttoned-up culture.
The stagecraft of Paddack extend beyond his wardrobe. In April, New York Mets first baseman Pete Alonso won National League Rookie of the Month, an otherwise obscure honor that Paddack coveted. Paddack delighted in a scheduling quirk bringing the Mets to Petco Park soon after. “I’m coming for him,” Paddack declared, before striking out Alonso twice — and pumping his fist on the mound both times.
That outing occurred May 6. Paddack struck out 11 across 7-2/3 scoreless innings. Then he rested until Tuesday, as the Padres manipulated their rotation to protect Paddack’s innings. He threw only 90 last year as he recovered from Tommy John surgery, and San Diego will monitor his usage throughout the season.
“He wants to do great things in this game,” manager Andy Green said. “He wants to do great things as a team, but he understands that doing great things as a team doesn’t just mean 2019.”
Green heard a story about Paddack soon after San Diego acquired him in 2016. Paddack was a relatively unknown commodity. General manager A.J. Preller had nabbed him from the Miami Marlins in exchange for reliever Fernando Rodney. Paddack was assigned to class-A Fort Wayne. One day soon after, a member of the player-development staff arrived at the park around noon and saw Paddack in the outfield.
“He was running, on the track, by himself, with nobody else in the stadium, pushing himself,” Green said. “Those things are uncommon. Most people like to be seen when they work. He doesn’t care. He just wants to work.”
The doggedness could not prevent injury. Paddack missed the entirety of 2017 after undergoing surgery. He made 17 starts last year between class-A and double-A, finishing with a 2.10 earned-run average and 120 strikeouts in 90 innings.
The performance merited Paddack an invitation to big-league camp. Preller has spent almost half a decade hoarding prospects. He has begun to inject them into the major-league roster, incentivized to shift from rebuilding to contending after the organization chose to pay Manny Machado $300 million this winter.
Paddack joined a prospect-rich camp that included shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr., who also made the opening-day roster. Paddack impressed veteran teammates with the electricity of his arsenal and the steadiness of his focus. They noticed his attentiveness during morning meetings. It did not matter if the topic was bunting drills or security tips. Paddack stayed alert.
“He was locked in to everything,” first baseman Eric Hosmer said. “Most starters, one of every five days, they’re pretty intense, and they’re a different dude after that. But he genuinely is that intense every day, for all the guys on his staff.”
As the Padres lounged in the visitors clubhouse Tuesday, Paddack wore a pair of AirPods to drown out the chatter about poker and the music from the stereo. He kept a stoic expression as he ventured into a preparatory conference with catcher Austin Hedges and pitching coach Darren Balsley.
In another corner of the room, reliever Craig Stammen smiled when asked about Paddack. The rookie reminded Stammen of a pair of aces he teamed with on the Washington Nationals. To Stammen’s eye, Paddack combined the cerebral studiousness of Stephen Strasburg with the bug-eyed intensity of Max Scherzer. “They all have a way of saying they’re going to do something, and then backing that up,” Stammen said.
Paddack impersonated neither pitcher Tuesday. The Dodgers pounced on him in the third, after Machado opened the inning with a throwing error. Paddack tested Pederson with a 94-mph fastball at the belt. Pederson smashed the pitch into the right-field pavilion.
Three batters later, Paddack segued into a duel with Bellinger, who fouled off four consecutive pitches before Paddack tried a 2-2 changeup.
The pitch appeared to be a ball, but Bellinger still drilled his 15th homer of the season.
Paddack credited the Dodgers for their approach and kicked himself for mistakes. He intended to fill up the hours in between starts studying his performance. He vowed to atone.
“It’ll be fun to watch my next start,” Paddack said.