With mainly baseball’s afterthoughts pursuing his services, reports emerged late Thursday night that the Twins were increasing their pursuit of starter Carl Pavano.
Tweeted by Sports Illustrated’s Jon Heyman, up until this point, the Twins had been extending a one-year contract to the Pavano camp but have recently added a second year in their offer. Unless another club swoops in and sweetens the deal with that mythical third year which Pavano has been requesting, the likelihood he returns to pitch in Minnesota in 2011 appears imminent.
From the Twins perspective, Pavano addresses several of their needs.
For starters, with a questionable assortment of bullpen arms, the starting rotation is going to be pressed to work deeper into games next season. Outside of three other starters in the league, no one averaged as many innings as Pavano did per start in 2010. This was an exhaustive problem last year as Scott Baker (5.8 innings per start) and Kevin Slowey (5.5 innings per start) frequently taxed the bullpen. Pavano, meanwhile, averaged 6.9 innings of work, allowing the ‘pen to take some much needed nights off.
Secondly, there is the fact that he is a quintessential Twins-type of pitcher. Not only does he have a miniscule walk rate, a low 1.6 walks per nine innings of work since 2009, but he rarely engages in any semblance of flirtation with the base-on-ball. Last year just 12% of his total match-ups resulted in a three-ball count bested only by some guy named Cliff Lee. For an organization that places a great deal of emphasis on restricting free passes, Pavano is an ideologue.
What makes him so stingy in the walks department is his tenacious introduction to each hitter. In his tenure in a Twins uniform, Pavano attacked the strike zone with gumption, getting ahead of hitters with a first-pitch strike 67.8% of the time, the best in baseball since ‘09. What’s more is that of his first two pitches, Pavano has located one or the other for a strike over 90% of the time in the past two seasons, also one of the highest in the game.
Although Pavano’s early count zone dominance does not come without some blowback, not only does this aggressive approach keeps him from walking hitters, it also affords him the luxury of turning to his harder to handle off-speed offerings. Using a change-slider combination the veteran right-hander likes to work on the fringe of the strike zone, attempting to inspire opponents to chase after these less than perfect pitches. In fact, his 34.1% out of zone swing percentage was the highest among starters since 2009:
Highest Out-of-Zone Swing% 2009-2010
Unlike some of the other names on that list, Pavano rarely induces the same amount of missed bats, instead relying on generating weaker contact then putting himself at the whim of the defense behind him.
It is this tactic which makes some analysts question where his output will be in 2011.
In 2010, Pavano posted his lowest career batting average on balls in play (BABIP). As a pitcher that allows a high amount of contact and has an unusually suppressed BABIP not typical of his recent track record, the laws of regression suggest that he will see his BABIP return towards the league-average or his career-norm in the ensuing year. If you adhere to this reasoning, it would imply that Pavano is likely headed to a season filled with more hits than his last.
Then again, because he was a prolific ground ball pitcher last year, Pavano’s BABIP (and ultimately his success) will likely be tied to the performance of his infielders. Even though the Twins have dismantled perhaps one of the league’s best defensive middle infields, the replacements in Alexi Casilla and Tsuyoshi Nishioka are projected to be a faster combination than their predecessor, leading one to speculate that they might be able to cut down more ground balls for Pavano than last year.
Similarly, the configuration of the home stadium also provides him some insulation. Although Pavano surrendered more hits at home versus on the road in 2010, he gave up fewer detrimental hits. When Target Field played big in 2010, pitchers could throw to contact could and get away with hitting a sizable portion of the plate middle-away without too much backlash as fly balls would simply die in the power alleys. Specifically for Pavano he allowed far fewer homers at Target Field (0.74 HR/9) than he did on the road (1.16 HR/9).
While most of the aforementioned indicators are favorable, there are also some signs that Pavano may have hit the wall in late 2010 or worse, have the makings of a potential injury.
In early August, Joe Christensen reported that the coaching staff said Pavano had a tired arm. Not long after that, Pavano, who has had a reoccurring sore neck throughout his career, had it flare up but decided to pitch through it. According to LaVelle Neal, this soreness originated in his neck on the right side and extended towards his shoulder area of his throwing arm.
Despite downplaying the significance of this discomfort, his results from August on were brutal. After allowing 131 hits in his first 148.2 innings, he finished the year allowing 96 hits in 72.1 innings including seven home runs post-August. In addition to that, Pavano’s strikeout rate fell off the table:
While it is likely that these results were purely the effects of high mileage on his arm, and an off-season of rest should rejuvenate him, it is still possible that his discomfort in his neck problem leads to something more substantial.
It is easy to go back-and-forth on whether signing Pavano makes sense for the Twins. On one hand, he's 35 years old, ripe for regression and assuming a significant chunk of the payroll. On the other hand, he’s the proverbial “gamer” who works deep into games and racks up innings, alleviating the bullpen’s workload.
When you add it up, for the most part, signing Pavano is a sensible transaction for the Twins. Financially, a two-year contract is reasonable and the $8-to-$10 million per season contract moderate but not outrageous. The biggest downside is whether or not adding Pavano restricts the Twins for making subsequent moves, such as re-signing Jim Thome or adding another quality bench option, or perhaps inspiring them to trade the arbitration-eligible Kevin Slowey to reduce overhead.
Based on his last two seasons of work, he’s clearly capable of chewing through a large quantity of innings and can work deep into the ballgame. Regression is certainly a probability but given his ability to limit walks, work ahead in the count, get opponents to chase out-of-zone pitches and hit plenty of ground balls, his totals in 2011 should not be too far off from his 2010 season.
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