Monday, July 19, 2010

What's Behind Carl Pavano's Big Start?

It’s no secret that The Common Man’s Twins have been struggling for the last month and a half. In that time, though, Twins fans have come to rely on one man, who has been a bulwark against the team’s potential collapse. He has pitched deep into games, and put many zeros up on the scoreboard. Once every five games, he has given the team an aura of toughness and a swagger that comes from confidence, not arrogance. And on a team with superstars like Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, he has quietly become a team leader.

The Common Man is talking, of course, about Carl Pavano.


Yes, Carl Pavano. That Carl Pavano. The Carl Pavano who almost inspired the city of New York to bring back the catapult.

Who, in four seasons (for which he was paid $40 million), started 26 games and was actually below replacement level. Pavano won five games in four years and was saddled with the awesomely snarky nickname “American Idle.”

But so far, Pavano has been awesome for the Twins. After being acquired from the Indians last August for a song, Pavano ate innings at a league-average rate for a team that desperately needed some stability. This year, Pavano has exceeded even the most optimistic projections. Through 19 starts, he has a 3.48 ERA and a 4.28 K/BB ratio (easily the best of his career). His BB/9 are down to the lowest level of his career (1.2 per 9 innings), which more than compensates for his low strikeout rate (5.1 per 9 innings).

Plus, he’s second in the league in awesomest mustache (behind only John Axford). Pavano’s success and mustache are inspiring other Twins to dive in, including Nick Punto and Nick Blackburn, who hope that some lip foliage is the only thing standing between them and being effective major leaguers. Plus, nobody celebrates a walk-off hit quite like Pavano:

So how is Pavano doing it? How is he pitching so well, and become such a beloved figure after being a national joke for 4 years?

First, let's throw out the obvious. The Common Man is not a fan of the "only some athletes can handle the pressures of New York" thing. You know, there are a few athletes who probably qualify, but TCM will bet the number of players who Yankee fans and media types think just can't hack it in The Big Apple is rougly 10 times the size of players who actually suffer because of the city where they play half of their games. A more likely explanation has to do with injuries, park effects, and small sample sizes leading to broad assertions about a player's overall psychological makeup. These are professional athletes who have risen through challenges in high school, college, the minor leagues, and often other major league teams, yes because they were extremely physically gifted, but also because they were psychologically strong. It's not at all clear that there was anything psychologically wrong with Pavano that kept him from being successful with the Yankees. Instead, a lot of the trouble in NYC can be explained because he was pitching injured, and wasn't nearly as good as the Yankees thought he was and promoted him as in 2005.

And physically, there doesn't seem to be a lot of difference between Pavno now and his time with the Bombers. His velocity is virtually unchanged. He’s throwing the same number of fastballs as before. He’s not even pounding the strike zone more often, despite what that walk rate might have you believe. Guys aren’t swinging and missing more (actually, the opposite). According to Fangraph’s FIP, Pavano’s was almost exactly as productive last year when the Twins got him. So what gives?

We could credit a new pitch. According to Pitch F/X, Pavano’s been using a two-seam fastball for the first time this year. So while he throws the same number of total fastballs, two-thirds of them are breaking slightly more. And indeed, Pavano’s fastballs have gone from being a liability (23.7 runs below average last year alone) to a strength (more than half a run above average per 100 pitches).

But for another thing, Pavano has been extremely lucky, giving up just a .259 BABIP. It is WAY out of line with the rest of his career (.307) and is unprecedented. Indeed, Pavano’s currently fifth in the American League in the category. Given that every other Twins starter is above .327, it’s safe to assume that Pavano’s luck is probably going to run out sooner or later. He’ll settle back into a league-average pitcher, at best, soon enough. Probably just after the Twins sign him to a 3 year, $33 million extension.


Anonymous said...

Pavano didn't add a two-seamer this season. He threw one last season. You are just mistaken taking MLB's Gameday pitch classfication as accurate, which it was not pre-2010. It is a little more accurate this season, more so being able to distinguish two seam and four seam fastballs with moderate success.

The Common Man said...

Maybe so, Anonymous. TCM is just working with the data he has available. Though if you could point me toward any kind of a source on your contention, that'd be great. Until then, TCM will continue to use Fangraphs. (Note, according to Fangraphs, Pavano did throw a 2 seamer last year, but did so sparingly.)

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