Monday, December 07, 2009

Is Carl Pavano Worth It?

Is Carl Pavano’s arbitration acceptance a genuine bargain signing or did the Twins just purchase Aldi off-brand pitching that will lead to nothing but dissatisfaction? 

When access to the offseason’s premier free agents is restricted by choking amounts of fiscal responsibility, debates like this crop up frequently. By Bill Smith’s own admission in the TwinsCentric GM Handbook, the organization will never “be in the market for the CC Sabathias. We’re not in the market for the top guys.”  Instead, they typically focus on the minimal risk and nominal investments players. Pavano is the epitome of that to the Twins. As one of the handful of free agents on the market that did not spend time on the DL last year, Pavano threw just a hair under 200 innings (199.1) while winning 14 games in the process and posting a solid 147-to-39 K-to-BB ratio - all respectable marks that would have “earned” him a contract of $16.5 million according to evaluation model.

At the same time in the conventional sense, Pavano’s 2009 season smacks of, well, Jersey Shore crap-tacularness. His 113 earned runs were the most allowed in the AL and his 5.40 ERA was the third highest in baseball (one of the two hurlers ahead of him is very much named Livan Hernandez). This, coupled with the extensive medical problems, thinned the herd of potential suitors. As the winter thickened, it seemed that the Milwaukee Brewers (who are as desperate for pitchers as pre-gaming Packers fans) and the Cleveland Indians (who just want to remind people they are still around) were the only other clubs in pursuit. But when Pavano’s agent started pushing a multi-year contract like a used car salesmen urging you add on the undercoating, the two other shoppers threw up their hands in a no-thanks-we’re-just-browsing manner and walked out of the store. Recognizing the realities of the market, Pavano and his agent decided that a one-year deal with the Twins would be the best method of increasing his free market value.  

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.

Advanced metrics aside, Pavano possesses high-quality repertoire as well. As a strike-throwing machine, he jumped out in front of hitters 0-1 on 68 percent of batters faced (much better than his counterparts who were averaging 58 percent first-pitch strike). The zone dominance allowed him to use his nasty slider/changeup combination liberally when ahead in the count. For the most part, his stuff was outstanding. Opponents swung at 50 percent of his changeups out of the zone and rarely threw his splitter in the zone but hitters offered at it nonetheless. This pair of pitches led to Pavano being the most chased pitcher in baseball last season as opponents were swinging at 31.6 percent of balls out of the zone:

PitcherOut-of-zone Swing%
Pavano (MIN)31.6
Halladay (TOR)31.4
Baker (MIN)30.4
Santana (NYM)30.3
Billingsley (LAD)30.2
Where he struggled last year was with his fastball – opponents tattooed his cheddar (.570 slugging, 17 of 26 HR allowed).

The Twins and Pavano will have a symbiotic relationship next season. Essentially, Pavano is auditioning for the multi-year contract at the conclusion of 2010 and needs a venue to do so. The Twins needed a low-cost, low-commitment starting pitcher with a better ceiling than what Jarrod Washburn would provide. If he remains injury-free, Pavano is very capable of supplying the Twins with an arm that has owned the AL Central rivals and a reasonable rate.