Monday, June 21, 2010

Pavano meeting expectations

As Carl Pavano breezed through what had become a very potent Phillie lineup in the two previous games, while tossing his second complete game of the year, he reduced his earned run average to 3.65 - a substantial improvement over his 5.10 ERA from a year ago.
Of course, this production shouldn’t have been unanticipated. Back in January when Pavano accepted the team’s offer of arbitration, I wrote:
To this day, a vast majority of the baseball world places an ungodly amount of emphasis on numbers like the ERA. Yes, it demonstrates that, superficially, Pavano’s season was sub-par however it does not indicate how he actually pitched. His left-on-base rate (66 percent) was well-below league average while his average on batted balls in play (.335) was much higher than the norm. He maintained a very good strikeout rate (6.6 K/9) and did not allow many walks (1.8 BB/9). If he posts similar peripherals next season, his LOB rate and BABIP numbers are almost certain to regress towards the mean. In short, his ERA should end up substantially lower in 2010.
Up to this point in the season, everything stated has more or less come to fruition. His strikeouts are down slightly (5.5 K/9) but he has compensated for that by walking fewer batters (1.4 BB/9), but for all intents and purposes, his peripheral numbers this season are essentially identical to his 2009 marks. Additionally, his previously below average left-on-base rate in ’09 has retreated back toward the average (71.9%) while his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) have dropped considerable too (.288). The results have been a 3.65 ERA through 14 starts – trailing only Francisco Liriano in the pitching staff.

The retention of his peripheral numbers is not surprising. While he’s not necessarily a strikeout pitcher, Pavano’s got enough dirt in his repertoire to get hitters to miss or freeze them cold. After leading baseball with 31.6% out-of-zone swings, Pavano is once again pacing the field, getting swings on 36.4% of his out-of-zone pitches. His changeup has been particularly lethal in getting hitters to pursue as opponents have strayed after the pitch frequently, 41% of the time, leading to a high amount of groundballs in play. To put that chase rate into perspective, Francisco Liriano’s slider incites a hitter to chase after it 48% of the time it is thrown out of the zone. This has equated to the sixth-best changeup in American League (6.4 wCH).

Furthermore, Pavano throws strikes, plain and simple. As it stands, Pavano trails only Seattle’s Cliff Lee and teammate Scott Baker in the highest percentage of first pitch strikes. What’s more is that while the rest of the league’s pitchers are able to get a strike with one of their first two pitches in a plate appearance 85% of the match-ups, Pavano has done so in 90% of his. Working ahead allows him to throw his changeups and other breaking pitches regularly where he succeeds at getting hitters to make contact with out-of-zone pitches.

His batting average on balls in play has been trimmed thanks to the offseason strengthening of the infield defense combined with more At ‘Em balls. Pavano’s groundball rate has remained consistent the past two seasons, hovering slightly above the league average. After turning in a .261 BABIP on groundballs in ’09, Pavano maintains a much lighter one at .200 this season. Part of the reason for the decline in this area is personnel related. Last year while splitting the season in Cleveland and Minnesota, the Indians and Twins had some extremely weak middle infield defense. The decision to sign Orlando Hudson and trade for J.J. Hardy while playing the defense-first Nick Punto at third has helped Pavano, as well as the rest of the pitching staff, dramatically. Now the Twins boast baseball’s best marks at short, sixth-best at second and fifth-best at third:

Twins’ UZR/150
Twins BABIP on GB

Lastly, and possibly his biggest area of improvement, has been the correction of his splits against right-handed opponents. In ’09, right-handed opposition hit .317/.345/.504 off of him. So far through his 14 starts, Pavano has limited the same pool of hitters to a .238/.267/.384 batting line.

It goes without saying that there is still plenty of baseball left and approximately 16 or so starts for things to rattle off the tracks for the big mustachioed righty, however, Pavano has been invaluable to this point in the season, providing 10 quality starts in 14 outings. From this vantage point, the $7 million dollar investment in the starting pitcher has been wildly successful for the Twins.