Legacy, change, fulfillment: Northwestern’s Nick Paciorek looks his future face-to-face

NU RHP Nick Paciorek

By Andre Toran
Medill Reports

The mid-July sun illuminated the sky above Chuckie Fick’s California home with a glow sweeter than the first bite of a summer peach. There in Fick’s backyard, Northwestern pitcher Nick Paciorek stood on the lip of a makeshift putting green, focusing on the instructions he just received. “Front shoulder uphill, front shoulder uphill. Keep your shoulder uphill.”

Formerly a catcher, Paciorek was transitioning to the mound last summer, and like a sponge, he was soaking in all the instruction he could.

Sixty feet away from him, Fick was down in a squat.

Paciorek began his delivery and propelled the ball violently through the air towards Fick– the stark white of the ball aggressively contrasting with sandy cinderblock fence in the background.

Before Fick could blink, the ball hit his glove, popping the leather like a wet towel hitting flesh.

“OK, I’m done,” said Fick, a former major league pitcher himself and a family friend of Paciorek. “That’s enough. You’re throwing a little bit too hard for me.”

Just as Fick waved his white flag – calling an end to their makeshift bullpen session — his daughter Sage and wife Isabel emerged out the sliding glass door onto the patio, eyes burning with curiosity, to see what was happening. The crack of the ball hitting the glove echoed through the house.

What began as a simple game of catch turned into a pitching clinic.

It was natural for him. It was always meant to come easier to Nick — even if he knew it or not.

Big League Bloodline

Baseball courses through Nick Paciorek’s blood – it’s a large part of his family’s legacy. Every step of his maturation and transition from catching to pitching has been a family affair with everyone playing a role.

As Northwestern’s high-leverage reliever this past season and now a seventh-round draft pick of the New York Yankees, Nick is an extension of a line of a professional baseball heritage, looking to carve out a legacy of his own.

Simply put, the 20-year-old junior was made for what he’s become.

Three of four of Nick’s uncles and his dad played either at the major league level or flirted with it.

Tom Paciorek, the most notable name of the group, played 18 years in the bigs for six different clubs, was an All-Star once and the White Sox color man as a broadcaster for more than a decade.

His uncle John Paciorek made one appearance in the major leagues in 1963 with the Houston Colt .45s as an 18-year-old outfielder and in his first and only at-bat went 3-for-3 with three runs batted in. But he never played in the majors again because of a back injury and remains the only man in the history of Major League Baseball to bat 1.000 in three career at-bats.

Nick’s father Mike was a second-round draft pick for the Dodgers out of high school in 1973 and had a five-year career in the Dodgers’ and Braves’ minor league system. And finally, Nick’s uncle Jim Paciorek played a year with the Brewers in 1987 and spent the rest of his career in Japan.

This is Nick’s lineage – one he tried to run from initially as a child growing up in Southern California.

As a child Nick Paciorek preferred to play hockey over baseball. This is Paciorek, 11, hitting the puck — eventually trading a hockey stick for a bat (via Staci and Mike Paciorek).

“I hated baseball when I first played it,” Nick said. He preferred to play hockey, but Mike ultimately forced it on him.

“He asked his mom, ‘Why do I have to play baseball? Why is dad making me play baseball?’” Mike recalled with a laugh. But after a year of t-ball, Nick was sold as his exposure to the game grew.

From there, the rest of his family committed to his development.

Exposing him to the highest level of baseball, Tom gave Nick views of the game that many kids don’t see. When Nick was eight, Tom, then a broadcaster for the Washington Nationals, hauled Nick from park to park all summer. Nick watched games from the booth and Tom would take him down to the field to meet the players, helping Nick to visualize his dream.

“Whatever experiences we had we tried to share as much as possible with Nick, so it would be beneficial for him,” Tom said.

Moving forward, these experiences stuck with Nick and kept him centered in the face of change.

Growing Pains

When Nick joined Fick that day in his backyard, they focused on fine-tuning his mechanics.

They analyzed video of Nick’s delivery and the angles he was creating with his arm in limited action with Northwestern that season and a recent summer-ball stint with the Portland Pickles.

They played simple games of catch to ease Nick into the adjustments Fick suggested: changing the angle of his front shoulder from downhill to uphill. If Nick wanted to preserve his arm health and have success, this was the formula, Fick said.

Nick was quick to listen, applying Fick’s instruction so fast that games of catch became bullpen sessions, which became the crafting and developing of new pitches – a slider and changeup.

He learned so quickly that Fick said, “it was almost unfair,” taking instruction and in matter of moments replicating it just as it was shown.

“I know it sounds crazy and it’s anecdotal but it’s true. He’s that good,” Fick said. “For some people it’s that easy. That’s what makes the difference between the average person and a professional athlete, that sometimes things like that come so easy.”

Nick had the bloodline and the foundation, but the path to his dream wasn’t always foreseeable.

As a catcher for Oaks Christian School in Westlake Village, California, Nick found himself struggling to stand out in a competitive high school environment – athletically and academically. He yearned to play at the next level but wondered if his time would come.

Nick Paciorek Oaks Christian
A junior at the time, Nick Paciorek walks through the dugout during a game in high school with his alma mater, Oak Christian School in Westlake Village, CA — a part of greater Los Angeles (via Staci and Mike Paciorek).

Mack Paciorek, Nick’s cousin and elder by 21 years, didn’t want Nick to get lost in the shuffle of amateur baseball and its mental and political gymnastics with showcases, travel ball and so on.

As a high school coach and instructor in Southern California, Mack is familiar with the pitfalls of amateur ball and what it does to kids: injury, burnout, frustration. So, he said he made it a priority to be a resource for Nick throughout the process.

“I wanted Nick to understand that he could call me at any time,” said Mack, a former pick of the Detroit Tigers.  “It could have been every day of the week; it could have been once a month. I was hopeful he understood that I was in the thick of everything, so I could be a sounding board if he was ever frustrated, or give him an opportunity to get a workout in if he wanted to mix up the routine, so he could stay positive and keep believing in himself.”

He wanted Nick focused on staying upbeat and, “loving the game enough that you want to keep surviving,” he said.

Nick remained resilient and took advantage of Mack’s help, driving about 30 minutes (two hours with traffic) from the Valley to Pasadena to workout with Mack and his team at San Marino High.

This decision ultimately earned him his ticket to Northwestern.

Often Mack held small, intimate workouts for his team at San Marino to showcase their skills in front of college coaches versus the bright lights and politics of large showcases.

He’d frequently invite Nick to these sessions and one day the summer before Nick’s senior season, Northwestern pitching coach Josh Reynolds was in attendance — and Nick impressed.

Reynolds said he liked Nick’s raw tools: a strong arm, an athletic build and a swing that needed improvement, but had upside that he could work with.

Unbeknownst to them, this assessment was the perfect mold for Nick’s fit as a pitcher today.

The Call

In his first two seasons at Northwestern, Nick struggled offensively and couldn’t break the starting lineup. He worked primarily out of the bullpen – warming up pitchers.

And with a deep class of incoming recruits to thicken the competition in 2019, Reynolds was concerned that Nick would be the odd man out and didn’t want to waste Nick’s ability.

“We wanted to get something out of Nick,” Reynolds said. “We didn’t want him to just be a bullpen catcher. He could help us in some way, shape or form.”

This is what elicited the change.

A week before a mid-season matchup with Indiana University, Nick was going through his regular routine with the other catchers – warming up, working on receiving, and throwing to one another from the mound.

“You noticed it there,” Reynolds said, flashes of what could be. “When you looked at his body and his arm, how the ball was coming out of his hand, it was like, ‘You know what, let’s give him a shot.’”

This was the fit and Nick was all for it, Reynolds said. On April 15, 2018, Nick made his first appearance against No. 10 Indiana.

Losing 21-1 in the eighth inning, Nick sat on the bullpen bench with senior catcher Matt Jones watching the game, when Reynolds radioed down to the bullpen and told him to start throwing.

Senior reliever JR Reimer had just injured his arm and because of the number of relievers the Wildcats had already used there was no one else to pitch except Nick.

“[I] was like, ‘Oh [crap] I don’t know how to do this, but I’ll try,” Nick said. “There’s no high expectation for me right now.’”

Nick entered, gave up one unearned run, walked two and struck out one. He struggled his next two outings to close 2018, giving up 12 earned runs, but it came with the territory.

The Dream is Now

His commitment to change is how Nick found himself in Fick’s backyard last year, throwing mid 90s fastballs on a putting green, and it changed him for the better.

And as before, his family committed alongside him. They sent tapes of Nick pitching to their connections in pro baseball, like Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt, and his mom Staci, a chiropractor, maintained his arm through ultrasound treatments and other therapies.

Northwestern pitcher Nick Paciorek delievers throws a pitch to a Minnesota batter in a 6-5 loss to the University of Minnesota Saturday May 18 (Carolyn Katz Photography).

“There was a lot of adversity,” Nick said about his transition. “I worked my way up to the fall and started to get better and better and better, building off the things I learned when it was bad. I know I never want to be there again and that motivated me to get better.”

Now, Nick is a different pitcher — commitment, coachability and destiny all in one.

“Nick already had the ingredients for it,” Fick said. “He just needed some direction some refinement, to be what he is today.”

Starting with a strong offseason program in the fall, he picked things up just as fast as he did in Fick’s backyard and learning in the face of uncertainty – everything trial and error.

Fangraphs k/9 and k%
This a chart displaying the scale of strikeouts per nine (K/9) and strikeout percentage, from awful to excellent according to Fangraphs. As you can see, Paciorek’s 15.1 K/9 falls way above excellent.

On May 18, Nick completed his first full season as a pitcher, posting a 3-2 record, a 3.37 ERA, and 15.1 strikeouts per nine innings in 26.2 pitched. That ratio almost doubles what’s considered as the major league average (7.7) with 10.0 being elite, according to Fangraphs. More impressively, no major league reliever has a ratio above 7.3 (Yonny Chirinos, Tampa Bay Rays, 7.2).

After going No. 225 overall to the Yankees in the 2019 MLB First-Year Player Draft on Tuesday, he may soon join the ranks of the Pacioreks that came before him. And whether Nick decides to sign his rookie deal by the August 15 deadline or chooses to return to school for another year, the dream is finally within reach.

Mack said he believes this is “just the tip of the iceberg,” for Nick, while Reynolds reflects on the progression of Nick’s journey.

“Did we ever think it was going to end with him being in talks to be a draft pick and scouts coming to watch?” Reynolds said. “No, we didn’t…we just didn’t realize how quick he was going to develop into what he is now.”

Nick Paciorek Northwestern baseball
Northwestern pitcher Nick Paciorek walks off the field after the final out of the fourth inning versus University of Minnesota Saturday May 18 (Carolyn Katz Photography).

It shouldn’t be a surprise, it’s who he is.

“They always put confidence in me, like I had the ability to do it – like stick through the hard times and it’ll all work out,” Nick said of his family’s support. “And I feel like I’m on my way to being like them hopefully.

Photo at top: Northwestern RHP Nick Paciorek throws a pitch toward the plate in a 6-5 loss to the University of Minnesota Saturday May 18(Carolyn Katz Photography).