Sunday, August 09, 2009

The Pavano Acquisition.

With some reason, there exists a chorus of local media wonks that believe that Carl Pavano was less than a resounding acquisition for the Twins.  They will say that securing another aging, control-wielding pitcher that was passed over by the larger market teams at the trade deadline reeked of a “typical Twins” maneuver.  On the airwaves, KFAN’s Paul Allen recited how uninspiring this move was to a choir of uninformed rubes.   Yes, those that worship at gospel of ERA will be less enthused by the Pavano trade; however, there are plenty of reasons why this acquisition should be met with the same victorious reception as if the Twins landed either Cliff Lee or Jarrod Washburn.  In fact, there could be MORE reasons to be excited about Pavano. 

Littered with a history of more injuries than Wile E. Coyote, Pavano figured out a way to extort $39.95 million from George Steinbrenner while working just 26 days out of four years.   (Good work if you can find it.)  Back when the Yankees signed the then 28-year-old Pavano in December of 2004, they figured they had acquired a potential 20-game winner that had World Series experience and would be another frontline component of a dominating rotation that already boasted Randy Johnson, Mike Mussina and Kevin Brown.  Little did the Yankees know he would pull an Ocean’s Eleven on Steinbrenner’s money.  Pavano would never give New York a full season of starts in his four years in the Bronx, rather he would cost the organization millions in medical expenses and headaches. 

Though he may not be able to find a cab in NYC any time soon, Pavano rebounded nicely in 2009, appearing to be fully recovered.  In January, the Indians inked the tall righty to a one-year incentive-laden deal that started with a $1.5 million base but could increase by another $5.3 million as various milestones are reached (starts and innings).  Finding themselves as an also-ran in the Central and staring a $16 million dollar operational deficit in the face, the Indians began to jettison anything that could float.  Gone were Lee, Victor Martinez, Mark DeRosa, Rafael Betancourt and Ben Francisco.  Oddly enough, Pavano remained.  As attractive as Roy Halladay, Lee and Washburn were made out to be at the trade deadline, rare were reports of how adding Pavano could upgrade a rotation.  Perhaps it was the gaudy ERA or the looming injury potential, but no deal involving Pavano was made by the July 31st deadline, possibly to a great baseball injustice to the Indians organization and a huge coup for the Twins.   

For teams that evaluates players with advanced statistics (Boston, Tampa and Seattle come to mind), it would be hard to ignore that his xFIP of 4.16 – a stat that normalizes the home run rate along with the infusion of strikeout and walk rates – which was TENTH best in the AL among qualified starters.  Better than Sabathia.  Better than Buerhle, Shields, Washburn, Burnett.   Et cetera.  Et Cetera.   He was pitching better than all of those staff aces.  One xFIP point worse than Lee – one point! – and it took the Phillies four of their top ten prospects to nab Lee from the Indians.

From his perspective, Pavano did everything he could to limit the number of guys on the basepaths.  With 1.7 walks per nine innings, Pavano was second only to the highly-coveted Halladay in walks.  Similarly, Pavano’s 67 percent first-pitch strike trailed only the Blue Jays’ ace as well.  His ERA over-5.00 is reflective of a largely unlucky series of events and the results of what happens once the ball was in play, which was out of his control.  While Washburn’s peripheral numbers are nothing to write home about, the Mariners supplied the flyball-oriented pitcher with some of the best fly-catchers in the game today in the Safeco outfield.  As Washburn’s trade value with inflated by his surroundings and his ERA substantially lowered in 2009 by the aid of his defense, Pavano was wrongly demerited for the sins of his defense.  Over the course of his career Pavano’s use of speed change between his fastball and changeup (10-mph velocity difference) coupled with the downward action of his split-finger tended to incite a higher number of groundballs than average.  Because of the Indians foolish insistence on using Jhonny Peralta at shortstop, it wound up costing the Tribe and Pavano numerous outs – evident by the team’s fourth-worst .770 infield revised zone rating leading to a higher average on those groundballs in play (.275 versus the league average of .233).  A defensive infield unit closer to that of the league average RZR of .783 would have saved the righty a good deal of baserunners.  
Furthermore, Pavano maintained a DER (defensive efficiency ratio) of .673 – the third lowest amount of balls converted to outs among qualified starters.  Because of Cleveland’s inability to exchange balls in play for outs at the going rate of .695, Pavano was forced to throw more pitches, leading to more opportunities for the opposition to drive a pitch. 
This is hardly giving Pavano the tools to succeed.  Whereas Washburn’s defense provided him with additional outs and quicker exits to the inning, this prolonged time on the hill came at the expense of more baserunners crossing the plate.  Pavano’s extra exposure resulted in more runs trickling in as he exercised the AL lowest strand rate of 63.4 percent while the average starting pitcher was able to strand 71.4 percent of all runners.  Part of that low number has to do with who Indians manager Eric Wedge relays the ball to once Pavano is pulled.  With 41 percent of inherited runners scored, Cleveland’s bullpen is the second-worst in the AL.   This is a considerable amount of bad luck interjecting itself into an otherwise solid pitcher. 

But the simplest reason to get behind this transaction is the fact that Pavano has been dominant against the two AL Central teams competing with the Twins.  For seven innings on Saturday night, the right-hander demonstrated exactly why the Twins were interested in his services.  Holding the Tigers to no runs on five hits, Pavano improved his 2009 record against Detroit to 4-0 with a 1.48 ERA in 30.1 innings.  Make that now 6-1 against the Tigers and White Sox combined.  Considering that there are 13 more matches against these opponents, there will be a good chance that Pavano works three to four of those games.