Monday, December 20, 2010

The Case Against Carl Pavano

Baseball has been an interesting journey for Carl Pavano.

After a phenomenal 2004 season where he posted a 3.00 ERA for the Marlins, the Yankees signed him to one of the most maligned contracts in baseball history. A four year, forty million dollar deal (39.75m technically) that imploded in epic fashion as Pavano struggled through every legitimate injury imaginable, and others - bruised buttocks? - not so imaginable. In total, Pavano would make just 26 starts for the Yankees.

His next contract, a one year 1.5m dollar deal with incentives from the Indians would not prove to be so significant. But it was during this time that Pavano finally managed to re-establish himself as a solid starting pitching option. The Indians of course traded Pavano to the Twins after the 2009 trade deadline in a minor deal for Yohan Pino. Pavano went on to pitch brilliantly down the stretch for the Twins that year as they overcame the Tigers in an epic 163rd game. He also made two solid playoff appearances, but wasn't able to prevent the Twins from being swept out of the first round by his former team two years in a row.

Now, after throwing 221 innings while registering a 3.75 ERA, Pavano finds himself perhaps the most sought-after free agent starting pitcher with Cliff Lee off the table. He's in line for a multi-year deal worth at least 10m per season. But just how much is Pavano worth, and is he worth the risk?

To figure that out, we first need to figure out exactly what type of pitcher Carl Pavano is, and how he projects going forward. I think the simplest way of putting it would be to say he's an innings-eater. His journey through the Yankees minefield aside, Pavano has registered at least 199 innings in his four healthy seasons. He logs those innings without particularly dominant stuff: a fastball that averaged 90.1mph, slider and changeup, and a strikeout rate of just 5.72 for his career. A rate that dropped to a career low 4.76 last year.

What Pavano lacks in ability to miss bats, he helps to make up for in control. With a very good career walk rate of 2.26, his 1.51 mark in 2010 helped to offset the loss in ability to strike batters out and ensured that even with such a miniscule strikeout rate, he still managed to post a 3.16 K/BB ratio. Pavano pairs his low walk/low strikeout combination with solid ground ball rates which, like his walk rate, reached a career best mark of 51.2% in 2010.

While the metrics have changed a little bit, with both the strikeout and walk rates coming down a little from his time with the Marlins and Expos, Pavano essentially remains the same pitcher he was at the start of the decade. He came out throwing in the low 90s (90.7 his first two years), and his career 5.72K / 2.26BB / and 46% GB rates are reasonably similar to what you saw in his 2010 campaign.

The problem is that with the exception of his 2004 and 2010 seasons (coincidentally both walk years) that combination has never really produced particularly impressive results. His 2010 ERA was largely the result of a somewhat beneficial .286 BABIP and a career best 74% LOB rate (along with the career best walk and ground ball rates). Like most pitchers who pitch long enough, his career ERA (4.34) and FIP/xFIP marks (4.15/4.11) match up nicely, and both suggest that Pavano is what we thought he was. A mediocre innings eater.

He's not an ace. He's not a number two.

He's more of a #3 who can be relied on to chew up innings.

Most speculation suggests that Pavano is aiming for a three-year deal that would average something in the neighborhood of 12m per season. Similarly, there is a lot of speculation that the teams interested don't want to go beyond two years. In all likelihood, a team that showed a willingness to go to three years would claim Pavano rather quickly, and I'm guessing that's what he's holding out for.

And so we wind up back at our original question, what is Carl Pavano worth?

On a pure WAR level, his average of around 3.7 WAR during his last four healthy seasons suggests he's certainly worth the 12.0m he's seeking on a per annum basis, and his track record (Yankees saga aside) suggests he's worth that.

Of course, looking strictly at WAR levels can be deceiving. What teams really look at is replacement value - "how much better is player B compared to player A who is already on my team)".

In the Twins case, the most likely player to be replaced would be Kevin Slowey. Slowey is a capable pitcher (6.86K/1.50BB - 31.6%GB) in his own right, though he suffers from being one of the most fly-ball prone pitchers in the league. He also struggles to pitch deep into games, but still managed to log 155 innings in just 28 starts, not a terrible mark, but still almost 70 fewer innings than Pavano logged last year.

With a depleted bullpen, those extra 50-70 innings that Pavano could provide become more significant, as it essentially removes an entire reliever from the equation. In the Twins case, a reliever that's likely to trend toward replacement level.

Replacing Slowey with Pavano will, without a doubt, make the Twins better. It may also help offset some of the cost of Pavano if the Twins were to subsequently trade Slowey and the 2.5m I expect him to get in arbitration. Or perhaps the Twins could look to move Brian Duensing back to the bullpen, and bolster a group left with little beyond Joe Nathan and Matt Capps. They've got some options.

The flip side of course is that Pavano will almost certainly not be as good in 2011 as he was in 2010. His peripherals don't support such sustained success and therefor, you ultimately end up paying an extra 8-10m (the approximate difference between Slowey's 2.5m and Pavano's 10-12m) for an extra 50-70 innings of work from your rotation.

What if, instead of investing 12m into Pavano for 2010, the Twins were to instead spend 8m on a pair of free agent relievers by bringing back Jon Rauch and bringing in Arthur Rhodes? That pair would give manager Ron Gardenhire five options out of his bullpen ranging from decent (Jose Mijares) to amazing (Nathan) - and overall, provide the Twins with approximately 100 innings of work that's likely to be as good, or better, than what they'd get from Pavano.

As with any player move there are dozens of factors that need to be considered. But it's my opinion that the Twins could spend 10-12m in ways that would make more sense than making a marginal improvement at starting pitcher.

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