Twins pitcher Paddack punishes himself for poor performance

Chris Paddack walked into the Target Field bullpen two Saturdays ago and laid 10 one-dollar bills on the pitcher's mound. The time had come, the Twins righthander decided, to bet on himself, to back up his desire to improve with a little — OK, very little — monetary incentive.

Paddack had been frustrated with his disastrous start in Baltimore three days earlier, at the way he kept leaving his fastball in the strike zone yet couldn't find the zone with his changeup. The Orioles took advantage by rocketing nine hits, including a pair of homers, around Camden Yards in his 5⅓ innings, and piling up nine runs.

"My fastball has to be above the zone to get swing-and-miss with two strikes, but I couldn't get it up top in Baltimore. And my changeup was underneath the zone, so nobody chases. I had to force myself to make that adjustment," said Paddack, who will attempt to extend the Twins' 10-game winning streak when he faces the Red Sox on Friday. "They were punishing me, so I decided to punish myself first."

So before his next bullpen session, he spread out the cash and waved over pitching coach Pete Maki.

"I was like, 'If I don't execute this fastball above the zone — it has to be over the white and above the zone, can't just be an air-mail pitch — I don't owe you a dollar,' " Paddack said. "'But if I don't get it there, or it's one of those uncompetitive heaters in the zone, I owe you a dollar.' "

Full disclosure: The 28-year-old Texan earned 13,475 dollar bills from the Twins that day, the daily wage for an MLB ballplayer with a $2.52 million contract this season. And yes, he's already made more than $7 million in his career.

But putting a one-dollar bounty on each pitch added just enough incentive, Paddack said, to make doubly sure his execution was perfect.

"It made it fun, and it kept me from eating myself up about what happened in Baltimore. That can carry over if you let it," said Paddack, who recalls walking away with "eight or nine" dollars from the roughly two dozen pitches he threw in the pen, a highly successful practice. "I put those fastballs right where I wanted them," he bragged.

Which doesn't surprise his manager. "Most big-league players are insanely competitive," Rocco Baldelli said. "I've seen guys with contracts worth hundreds of millions, and if you told them they were playing for a ham sandwich, they'd kill each other to win it."

Even, in Paddack's case, if there is nothing to win but his own money.

"You think I should see if Pete will pay me a dollar for getting that fastball up top?" Paddack said with a laugh. "Ah, that's OK. This way is worth it to me if it helps. It keeps me accountable."

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Paddack, the Opening Day starter for the Padres in 2020, was traded to the Twins just as the 2022 season was starting along with reliever Emilio Pagan in a deal that sent top reliever Taylor Rogers and future All-Star outfielder Brent Rooker to San Diego.

But Paddack had Tommy John surgery that May, and didn't return until late last season, when he was an effective reliever in the playoffs. The Cedar Park, Texas, native has a 2-1 record through five starts this season with his ERA still an ugly 5.88 because of that outing in Baltimore.

Maki understands the competitive spirit that adding a bounty sparks in pitchers. This isn't the first time a pitcher has suggested it, actually.

"[Dylan] Bundy came out a couple of years ago with freakin' 100s [to give me] if he didn't get his split below" the strike zone, Maki said. "His idea, not mine. But it's a way to keep it fresh, and put a little money on the line."

Maki donated his winnings from Bundy — "a couple hundred bucks," he recalled — to a team dinner for the relief pitchers. He doesn't expect to make much cash from Paddack but encourages the habit.

"We throw so many bullpens during the course of a year, so to add some incentive to it makes it fun," he said.

And maybe it works. Paddack rebounded from his rough start against the Orioles to pitch seven shutout innings against the White Sox in his next start. It even came with a bounty of its own.

"In the pregame meeting, I said 'I've got another challenge for you. If I don't throw a breaking ball over 80 [mph], I owe you a dollar,' " Paddack recalls. "Second breaking ball of the game, 80.9. So I kept my dollar."

He got nine swing-and-misses off his fastball and five more off his changeup en route to striking out 10 batters, one short of his career-high.

But one at-bat bothers him. In the seventh inning, finishing off his longest outing since 2021, Paddack got two strikes on Chicago third baseman Danny Mendick and tried to blow a fastball by him. But the pitch wasn't high enough, and Mendick grounded a single to right.

No harm done. Paddack ended the inning moments later with a ground out. But the Mendick at-bat bugged him.

"I tried to grit my teeth and beat him with the heater, tried to beat him with 95 [mph], when the correct pitch was probably changeup. He got me. Maybe cost myself one more strikeout," Paddack said. "I walked up to Pete in the dugout and said, 'I owe you a dollar.' "